By Kirra Grimes

A YOUNG Poowong family has been able to celebrate Christmas even in the most difficult circumstances, thanks to the generous support of their local community.
Dairy farmers Nathan and Nathalie Hancock received the devastating news on Sunday, December 15, that their historic three-bedroom home on the outskirts of town had burnt to the ground, with virtually nothing left of their possessions, including Christmas gifts for their four young children: 11-year-old Hamish, nine-year-old Grace, three-year-old Liam, and two-and-a-half-year-old Naomi.
All that was left were some work clothes hanging on the clothesline, but even most of these were melted. The fire is believed to have been caused by Christmas lights that had been left on as the family travelled to Tooradin that afternoon. The children had wanted the lights left on so that they could see them in the dark when they returned home.
Instead, they returned to “a pile of nothing,” in Nathan’s words.
Investigators traced the fire to a light-up inflatable Santa Claus Nathalie had purchased from a supermarket several weeks prior and had been turning on every day since, without incident.
Fire crews from Loch, Poowong, Traralgon and Korumburra attended the blaze while a friend of the family phoned, just after 5pm, to tell them “you need to come home”.
It all becomes a blur after that, the couple say, but their number one concern was making sure their Jack Russell ‘Lucy,’ chihuahua ‘Milo,’ and staghound ‘Chloe’ were ok.
“We can’t remember much,” Nathalie told the Sentinel-Times last week. “We were just panicking because we thought the dogs were inside, so we told our friend to try and get in to get the dogs out.”
All the dogs survived. Nathan had put two of them in a cage on the back of his ute that morning but couldn’t remember doing so. Chloe had been tied up between the house and the shed.
“We found out later that someone driving past stopped and untied her before the fire brigade got there,” Nathan said.
What didn’t survive were irreplaceable items including the kids’ baby books, full of photos and ‘firsts’ – first words; first tooth etc.
Family heirlooms including jewellery handed down by Nathalie’s great grandmother were also lost.
A hard drive containing family photos from the past seven years was recovered, but technicians said it was beyond repair.
The family’s hearts are still breaking, especially as they reflect on what the home meant to them.
They’d moved in in March 2019, in a rent to buy arrangement. They were just about to finalise the paperwork to make it theirs.
“The first time we went and looked at it, it just felt like home. It had so much character and so much potential to create a future not just for us but for the kids,” Nathalie said.
Instead of spending Christmas there, Nathalie, Nathan and the children spent it at Nathan’s parents’ house nearby in Poowong, where they’ve been staying since the night of the fire.
Though it was still a hard day, Nathalie said it would’ve been so much harder if not for the love and support of their friends and neighbours, many of whom donated gifts for the children through collection points at Poowong Consolidated School and the Poowong kindergarten, or donated funds to an online Go Fund Me campaign launched by Nathalie’s sister, which has so far raised over $7000.
“It was most important for us that the kids were happy on Christmas Day, and they had an amazing time considering,” Nathalie said.
The response from the community has been “unbelievable” and the family will be forever grateful for the support they’ve received, Nathalie and Nathan said.
“It’s hard to find words for how thankful we are. We’ve got so many people to thank and each and every person has helped in different ways. My best mate spent eight hours trying to find my lost jewellery; other friends tried to move gas bottles away from the house when the fire first started; and we’re so grateful for all the donations,” Nathalie said.
The outpouring of support has only strengthened the family’s desire to stay in Poowong long term, and they hope to rebuild on the same property where their home once stood.
“It’s always been a good little town,” said Nathan.
“And it’s sad but it’s at these times you realise how good we’ve got it and what an amazing community we’ve got living here,” Nathalie added.
For the time being, the family will move into a house on the Poowong farm where Nathalie and Nathan work.
With the donations they’ve received, they expect to be physically ‘back on their feet’ soon, if not mentally.
“It’s a really hard experience and it’s been really overwhelming,” Nathalie said.
“The first night people came up offering places to stay you just think ‘What are you talking about? We’re just going to go home’ but you can’t.
“You sometimes feel numb, lost… Then the next day, you have a good day, but then the smallest thing can set it off again. It’s a rollercoaster…” Nathalie said.
“And it’s probably going to be that way for a while too,” Nathan said.

Looters seen off
Adding to the emotional turmoil was an incident in the days following the fire in which Nathan caught opportunistic thieves trying to steal from his shed on the property.
They didn’t get away with anything and left in a hurry after Nathan confronted them, but it was nevertheless a troubling encounter.
“I was driving past on my way to work and I saw a car out the front. It’s not what you want to see a couple of days after, when there’s so many emotions already there,” Nathan said.
The would-be-thieves are not believed to be local, as Nathan, a lifelong Poowong resident, had never seen them before.
Wonthaggi police are investigating.