By Mitchell Clarke
Rex Newton watched on as the house he built 39 years ago erupted into flames. Losing everything, he’s been forced to rebuild his life from scratch, but the devastating event hasn’t stopped him from helping out his community.
In the lead up to the devastating Forgotten Friday bushfires, Rex Newton recalls looking towards the Bunyip State Forest from his beloved Bunyip North property.
He wasn’t expecting that his house would fall into its unpredictable and ferocious path.
“I wasn’t expecting it to get this far, you could see the smoke on the hill but it didn’t look like it was going to be that much of a threat to us,” he said.
Rex had no plans to evacuate until an emergency services worker warned him he’d need to leave the property behind immediately.
“He said to me, you’d better evacuate right now and I said, yeah I’ve got a few minutes and he was like, you’ve got about 30 seconds.
“I wasn’t planning on leaving because I had all my animals here, you know, you’ve got to think of them,” he said.
Thankfully, his dogs, cats and some birds were spared but a number of other birds and animals on his hobby farm perished as a result.
“I still remember loading the last dog onto the Ute and leaving as the house exploded,” Rex explains.
Describing the feeling of watching the house he built and grew to love, he said he wasn’t necessarily panicked.
“It was just like oh s***, I wasn’t panicked it was just more just a matter of getting in the car and leaving,” he said.
“I lost everything, all I had was a pair of shorts and a shirt and my boots. Everything went. I lost all my memorabilia and photos, absolutely everything.”
The heat of the fire caused the meat and the skin to burn off his elbow and made his hair “go really curly”.
But remarkably, the thing Rex misses most is his garden, which he claims might sound a “bit dumb”.
“I had 39 years of garden and everything established. I’m beyond square one now,” he explained.
Directly after the fire, Rex headed into Bunyip before making his way to Poowong where he dropped his pets at a shelter, where a number of his other animals were being kept.
He then headed back to his property, which once stood as a hobby farm but now represents a thriving menagerie.
“Of course they said I couldn’t go back in, so I did,” he cheekily laughed.
“I didn’t go through a blockade, I went around it.
“It was just a mess, everything was melted, they said it was about 1400 degrees.
“It was just a case of ‘well its gone’, you can’t do anything, it was too hot to get anything, you couldn’t get in and look for anything and you saw the heat of it and you just knew nothing would survive in there.”
A few days later, Rex relocated back to his property where he began sleeping in a tin shed. He’s remained there ever since.
“It’s alright in here I’ve got the company of a stray cat who has just had kittens,” he laughed.
“I’m alright. I’ve got stuff all. It’s not really ideal but people cope in different ways, I’ve got a warped sense of humour so it helps.
“You just have to be OK, I just think to myself, well there’s no good falling apart, what does that achieve?”
But sadly a number of neighbours and community members aren’t coping as well as Rex is, who has found himself spending a lot of his own time helping the community and putting their needs before his.
“There are people who aren’t coping, so you just have to try and help others, it’s what you have to do,” he said.
From buying plants for people to help rebuild their gardens to washing up dishes and helping out at the Tonimbuk Hall, Rex believes it’s tough times like these which require the community to stick together.
“There’s 25 hours in the day isn’t there,” he laughed
“I’ve been going around to all these nurseries and buying plants and giving them to people, I think I’ve taken about 300 plants to people and it lights up their mood instantly.
“You just do it, if you don’t help somebody, what are you here for?”
Thankfully, Rex was insured but getting the plans through council took months, with works scheduled to begin in November.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to work on reinventing his property.
“Every day I’m here doing something, planting trees, digging holes or doing something for the animals,” he said.
“I really love my garden so I’ve started planting all down the road and inside, so if I’m doing that at least it’s something constructive and it makes me think to myself ‘ah it’ll grow’ and it gives me something to look forward to.
“I could easily just close the front gate and continue to ask why this happened to me. But what does that achieve?”
But despite his tough front, Rex acknowledges that he shouldn’t be spending his retirement like this.
“You thought at 70 years of age I could just sit back and relax, but now you’re knocked right back to square one and you’ve just got to focus on doing what you can,” he said.
“I’m virtually back 20 years and I’ve got to start again, and I’m too old to start again.
“Look, I’m still enjoying life but it’s a bit of a strain.”
And although emergency services are preparing for a particularly ominous fire season ahead, it doesn’t for one minute make Rex want to consider packing up and leaving the area for good.
“Nope I don’t want to leave. I don’t why but I just love it, it’s a nice area, but it won’t be when that quarry goes in,” he laughed.