A volunteer fire fighter whose ute and home were torched on New Year’s Eve – while he was fighting deadly blazes on the NSW south coast – has taken delivery of a brand-new Toyota HiLux, a large portion of which was donated to him by a well known businessman and one of Australia’s biggest Toyota dealers.
Steve and Mandy Hillyar (pictured below) from Malua Bay lost everything in the bushfires that would ultimately claim more than 3000 homes and more than 30 lives over the Christmas-New Year period.
Steve Hillyar, 52, who has been a volunteer fire fighter since 1994, became well known after regular appearances on TV news bulletins when his ute was caught in the flames while parked at his local rural fire station.
He returned after a 24-hour stint on the fire truck to find his ute torched, along with vehicles owned by some other volunteers.
When Steve Hillyar finally made it back to his house, he discovered the family home was also destroyed.
His wife Mandy had already fled the house with their three daughters, two dogs and a small collection of farm animals (three pigs, two chickens and two sheep), but she had to double back to fetch their wedding rings before flames engulfed the property.
The couple had already been living without power for weeks after bushfires in the region destroyed the electricity grid, and his wife didn't know if Steve "was dead or alive" after he had been fighting fires around-the-clock, because the mobile phone network had also been razed.
Steve Hillyar, a chippy, has been without work since the fires, and the COVID-19 shutdowns have also impacted his wife Mandy’s childcare business.
The couple have struggled for work and have been homeless – staying with family and friends – since the beginning of the year.
The burnt-out ute was insured but Steve Hillyar couldn’t replace it for the payout figure he was given, which is when businessman and entrepreneur Mark Bouris – the founder of Wizard Home Loans and Yellow Brick Road – stepped in.
Bouris (pictured below, with Steve Hillyer in the driver seat) offered temporary mortgage relief to the family, which enabled Steve Hillyar to top-up his insurance payout to buy a new ute, but he still came up short.
Bouris then approached long-time friend John Roca, from Sydney City Toyota, to see if the dealership could contribute the balance to get Steve Hillyar into a new car.
Last Thursday, Steve and Mandy Hillyar finally picked up their new car, a Toyota HiLux extra cab with a drop-side tray, bullbar, tow bar, and load racks on the rear.
The couple hope to be able to get their lives back on track once the COVID-19 lockdowns ease.
“We saved about 30 to 40 homes that day, we lost count of how many we saved in the days and weeks before that,” said Mr Hillyar, adding that the small group of 25 volunteer fire brigade officers were exhausted after every available person had done countless shifts.
“The driver of our truck was 82 years old, absolutely everyone who was able to help was out there fighting fires,” he said. Unfortunately, they couldn't save the home of one of their own (pictured below).
Mr Hillyar is hopeful “disaster tourism” will help inject money into the economies of bushfire-affected areas – once the COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions are eased.
“Every night on the news is understandably now about the coronavirus, but there are still massive parts of Australia trying to get back on their feet after these catastrophic fires,” said Mr Hillyar.
“It’s as if everyone’s forgotten about us. There are still people living in tents. And there’s millions of dollars that’s been donated that is yet to be distributed to these communities,” said Mr Hillyar. “There’s $130 million sitting somewhere in someone’s drawer, not a cent has gone out.”
Mr Hillyar hopes that once the COVID-19 pandemic passes he will pick up work again as people in his area start to rebuild their houses and their communities.