How the ‘Singed Sisters’ survived the bushfire aftermath

Seven of the Singed Sisters, from left, From left: Suzanne Kukolic, Liz Tilley, Karen Downing, Alison Mills, Julie Pham, Jane Fitzgerald and Liz Walter. Photo by Maddie McGuigan

A PROJECT that’s part cookbook, part memoir has grown out of nine women’s friendship after losing their homes in the 2003 bushfires, says Karen Downing, who’s writing, compiling and publishing the book.

“Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food”, is appealing for crowdfunding through Pozible and will be available to buy online in December, says Karen.

“It covers the themes of devastation, desolation, restoration, celebration and commemoration,” she says.

“It contains family favourites, main meals, quick and easy recipes, cakes and comfort food and lots of salads. I’ve tied in the recipes around the themes – which means there aren’t any recipes in the first chapter because that’s when we lost everything,” she says.

Karen says that on January 18, she was at home with her then 10-year-old son, and had to jump in the back of a police car to escape her home.

“It was very dark with smoke and eerie, you couldn’t see very much, and although there were lines of cars trying to leave the suburb, there was no panicking, so it was a very odd day,” she says.

Karen says that in the weeks and months after the fires, people in the affected suburbs would gather for coffees and support but coalesced over time into a close group of nine women who called themselves the Singed Sisters.

“Initially there were other people who came along to the meet-ups for support, but not everyone had to rebuild their homes from scratch and they gradually drifted off as our conversation turned to toilets and taps,” she says.

“This group of women, happily, coincidentally, are the most positive, thoughtful, reflective, open people and there hasn’t been any bitterness in us. I think that in some ways the group has made us each individually better.

“It did affect us profoundly, for example we don’t want to be encumbered by stuff anymore. We also feel that life is short, and that we should make the most of it, and we all have.”

Karen says that through the process of rebuilding their homes in Duffy, Chapman and Holder, the Singed Sisters forged a bond that helped them cope better than they might have otherwise.

“Every time the footings were poured on a new house we’d get together, take a bottle of champagne and bless the footings,” she says.

“And then when we moved into our houses, everyone would bring a meal and we’d have lunch, and we loved that so much that we decided to get together monthly. And it just always worked. We discovered along the way that we had a love of good food in common and enjoyed sharing recipes.”

Karen says that eventually the women’s partners decided they were missing out, and decided one evening to cook dinner for everyone.

“From then on the Burnt Blokes and the Singed Sisters have been having dinners as well,” she says.

Karen, who’s a historian at the ANU and has created her own publishing company Obiter Publishing, says that about five years after the fires the Singed Sisters started to talk about sharing their stories and recipes more widely.

“We thought we could turn it into a book, but no one had time for such a big project so it’s been a long time coming,” she says.

“As time went on, it occurred to me that you hear about the devastation at the time and you get the personal stories of shock, loss and grief, but it usually disappears after the first anniversary and you don’t often get to hear about how people fare longer term. I thought there was an interesting story in that, and now it’s as much about the story of the fires as the recipes.

“It’s also about trying to find some insight in what helps people to cope better in these situations.

“Unfortunately bushfires are such a common occurrence now, this horrendous experience happens every summer and we have to be prepared that it could happen to us.”

Donate to “Tears, Laughter, Champagne” at pozible.com/project/tears-laughter-champagne

The funds raised will go to production costs and maximise the ultimate donation to YWCA Canberra.

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