Tod used her strengths and leadership to overcome 2020’s bushfire crisis

I’ve had the privilege of working with Tod Adams as her executive coach for the past eight months. When Executive Central decided to showcase inspirational women in our networks as part of our promotion of International Women’s Day, Tod immediately came to mind. Her passion for her work as Senior Program Manager, Rural Education Innovation & Learning, with NSW Health is obvious.

Tod’s can-do attitude helps her push through barriers and setbacks. She is forward thinking and solutions focussed but above all else, she uses positivity as a core strength to influence change. I’ve seen her draw on every ounce of this positivity to manage the emotional devastation of losing her family home in the New Year’s Eve bushfires. Tod has generously shared her personal journey through that experience here. — By Jane Counsel

Tod Adams

By Tod Adams

We did the sea change thing as a bicentenary project in 1988, but soon tired of the salt air and seaside tourism and decided to try the tree change thing. We bought five acres of lush land at Parma, near Nowra Hill, and built with our own hands a two-story sandstone barn-style home. We raised two free range children, some chickens and a domestic dog and cat. Our property is like a park with our resident wombats, roos and birdlife that come and go.

We knew the summer of 2019 would be tough. The dam, which holds 800,000 litres of water, was baked dry and the remnant grass crunched as you walked on it. Gum trees were dying, birds were falling from the sky. We worked hard to prepare our property for what may or may not happen. The gutters were cleaned, debris was cleared, and our remaining drinking water was used to fill gutters, and keep some plants and grass green.

The first alarm occurred on December 21. Our neighbour rang and said ‘this is it’. We could hear a distant rumble and the sky became dark as the wind picked up to over 100km /hr. We had a plan and it was not to stay. But as quick as the fire came at us, the wind changed direction and it was all over..

We repacked our cars more thoughtfully on December 22. Christmas came and went uneventfully, but we knew that New Year’s Eve would be the test. Everyone was warned, tourists were asked to go home, and locals were stocking up on water and fuel. Neighbours shared their plans and resources. This was our fourth big fire. We knew what it would be like.

My husband works in patient transport and he went to work. His moral compass wouldn’t let him stay at home knowing that someone’s mother/father/loved one would need help. Our daughter went to work with instructions not to come home under any circumstance. She was to go North to stay with her partner’s family. The dog, bird and I stayed at home and waited. I hosed again, I cleaned, waited. A colleague of my husband’s is a fire captain with the RFS. He rang my husband to see how we were going and enquired where I was… his instructions were for me to ‘get out now’.

I loaded the car, hosed again, turned the power off, the gas off, gas outlets facing away from the house. Curtains closed, doors shut, sinks filled with water. I had read what to do and I did it… going through the motions no different to a cardiac emergency in health care.

I looked back at the house thinking it might be the last time I would see it, but convinced myself I was being melodramatic as I teared up. The dog was barking at the bird in the car.

At the checkpoint I was asked if I had received the text, ‘what text?’. The text that said ‘it is too late to leave, seek shelter’. No I hadn’t and I was leaving. Over the ridge line I could see black billows of smoke and the sky was darkening.

There was surprisingly little traffic on the roads and fire trucks were screaming in every direction. I went to the Southern Highlands where my mother lives in her elegant townhouse. The five-acre dog in a 30 square foot yard. The little bird in a little cage. The scared girl in the woman.

It was a long night. The ‘Fires Near Me’ app (my hope compass) was checked every 15 minutes even though we had no mobile or landline phone coverage, or internet, in the Shoalhaven. The family reunited at mum’s house on New Year’s Day. We received photos by text from our neighbour who had put the fire out in our dining room. It seemed strange that the light fitting was sitting on the dining room table. It took a while for me to synapse that the light was on the table because the ceiling had caught fire and everything was baked and melted.

A water tank on Tod's property

Roads were closed as the fire moved north. We secured temporary accommodation at a motel in Bomaderry and stayed a week with other bushfire refugees. The bird remained with mum and the dog was billeted with a friend. It was adequate but not ideal. This period of time was the hardest. We didn’t know what damage had been done and we couldn’t access our lovely home. The hard part was not having a plan… the nothingness.

Trying to be productive with time, we chased insurance companies, wrangled with the inhumanity of government bureaucracy — the irony wasn’t lost on me given my work revolves around improving customer experience for the Department of Health in NSW — and lived like refugees.

We returned home on the second day of 2020. It was as bad as it could have been. The fridge had melted. Light fittings had become molten and cooled into abstract shapes. Air conditioners had melted off the wall. The Christmas tree was still standing with presents underneath, as a reminder of a happier week earlier. The air in our home was acrid with soot and carcinogenic fumes that hurt our lungs. What was reassuring was actually knowing. Knowing what we were up against and what we need to do to move our lives forward.

We were relocated into an apartment for seven weeks. We could cook and wash. We spent a total of 53 days in motel type accommodation until we could secure a 12 month lease on a property and begin the rebuild.

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The things I learnt in this time, no one should ever have to know. The agencies, the reports, the assessors, the banks, Centrelink, Service NSW, applications, Police reports, cancelling phone, internet, electricity, postage redirection. This period became a spreadsheet of tasks to check off to make sure we covered everything. The bureaucracy was challenging.

We were denied a grant as the ‘app’ and fire maps claimed we were not eligible. We had to challenge the system at every turn and the ongoing frustration was emotionally and physically exhausting. How did the elderly or those with literacy and communication problems manage?

The concerns, hugs and well wishes of friends, co-workers and strangers have given me faith in humankind. Some days have been really tough. As a family we are in different emotional time zones at any one point in the day. Our strength as a family is being together. Our respective employers have been fantastic as we accessed leave and took January off work. We needed to. In the first week I couldn’t make a simple decision, forgot to eat, lost things, found things… was dazed and numb.

There is talk of resilience in adversity… now I don’t know if I have it as I stumble through some days and from the outside it may look like I have it all together. On the inside there are moments of real doubt. I put on a brave face with the fluctuating cerebral and emotional bandwidth I have. I go to work, attend meetings, make valuable contributions with creative insights while trying to be a positive role model for the heiress. And at times feel spent, and just plain old homesick. I know the five stages of grief; they are not linear, they go around and around. But in the swirling grief cyclone I will surface at the end.

We have now secured accommodation and the dog and bird are coming back this week. They are victims of this as well and they will be good for our family’s recovery. A home is not just a house with possessions. It is a place where families converge, where the conversations of life that matter occur, where joyous events happen. Nothing bad had ever happened at our home. We are all homesick.

There will be the repurposing of our former home and a new building on the same site. This has given us a common determination. There has been rain, the dam is overflowing, trees are starting to reveal themselves as survivors and the birds have come back. The grass needs mowing. Friends are gathering plants and cuttings for the garden and when the time is right we will replant native gardens and orchards. The next 12 months will be tough. I have no illusions of it being anything but hard work, grit and determination, but as a strong family and with the support of friends and colleagues we will be going home.

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