Tomorrow (7 February) will be the one year anniversary of Australia’s worst natural disaster. In some ways, these two posts seem self-indulgent to me. After all, 173 people died on that day and not one of them was someone I knew personally. But we live on the edge of one of the devastated regions, and my husband is a CFA volunteer — we weren’t left entirely untouched. Watching the coverage of the earthquake disaster in Haiti these past few weeks has brought home to me how very small this Australian disaster was, in the scale of all things. And yet, there is nothing small about the aftershocks of grief still hitting nearby communities. Tomorrow is a national day of mourning and rememberance.
Here is what I remember.
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In the year before I was born, the Streatham fires killed five people, destroyed a town and decimated the local farming community. My father was a taciturn and stoic type but even so, I knew that the 12th February 1977 was one of the defining moments of his life. He spent much of it alone fighting for his survival and his livelihood. I can only imagine the terror.
The house was saved, but not the bulk of his livestock; the fine wool merino stud he’d spent decades creating was lost forever. And afterwards came the funerals of people he knew, and the clean-up, and the shooting of injured animals, and the excavating of mass graves. I remember he used to skirt around one section of paddock where he said the pit had been dug for his sheep: the burned and charred were dragged there; the walking wounded with their hacking coughs and lame, scorched hooves were herded nearby to be euthanased, or simply shot where they stood and loaded onto a truck.
There was a separate pit for the horses but he never told me where that was.
They didn’t have community counselling sessions in 1977. My father had no wife then; his parents were dead. I’m told he would drive around and pause outside the houses of neighbours but then pull away. Talking was something he was never good at and anyway, it would have been useless. What could it change?
A fear of fire was bred into me. In summer the CFA radio would crackle all day long and if there was too much chatter, I was to ride my bike over the dusty paddocks to wherever Dad was working and tell him what they were saying. Burning off before the fire season was one of the few farm jobs I really enjoyed: the smell of the smoke, the responsibility of holding the water hose, the fact that my little sisters were not allowed to help. Those cool evenings watching the crackling flames in the tinder-dry grass as we created firebreaks was a pleasant diversion. But if I got too close or prattled too much, Dad grew gruff and I was reminded that this was serious work. This was about staving off nightmares.
Maybe, carrying this history around, made me feel as if I knew about fires and their risks. And it made them seem both familiar and distant – fires happened, so I knew what must be done, but they hadn’t happened to me, so I was okay with their existence.
When I first noticed the thickening smoke on Black Saturday I reassured the American friend I was with that the fire was ‘probably the one in Gippsland’ and that smoke ‘blew a great distance’ and was ‘a normal part of Australian summers’. She looked up at the sky then, skeptically, and when I did too I felt uneasy. It was blacker than it should have been.
I called that friend, the one from New York, later, when I knew the fires were in the Yarra Valley. I had thought to calm her and in that way reassure myself. Instead, I learned her property was on fire. Her property that lay less than five kilometres from my home. Her husband was doing what my father had done all those years ago and fighting for his livelihood. My husband was out there somewhere too – anywhere – doing what he does and fighting for the lives and homes of others. And I was at home, with a baby, alone and afraid and dismally underprepared, leaving messages on a phone that I knew was probably abandoned at the CFA station before my husband took off in a truck to godknowswhere. Still, I told voicemail I loved it. What else do you do?
Like everyone, I didn’t know what that evening would bring or what it would change. But it felt big, even in my ignorance.
The truth is, Bean and I weren’t in danger. If it hadn’t been for a wind change, we may have been, even though technically we live in a suburb and there’s a fire hydrant outside our house. Certainly, when a CFA member stopped by to tell me she was taking her kids out of the area and that I should be prepared to do the same, I didn’t feel safe. Whatever the opposite of safe is, I felt that.
But the wind did change in the early evening and I stood outside in the growing dark and watched the trees moving the right way and knew we were spared from having to flee. Even so, that time I spent running essentials out to the car and cursing myself for not being better prepared and dithering over what to do with the cat was intensely frightening. It was a miniscule sample of the terror that others not far away were feeling as the firestorm bore down on them and it was more than enough. It was more fear than I ever want to face again.
I spent that long night clinging to the voices on ABC radio. I didn’t know where my husband was but so long as there was nothing on the news about a firefighter being hurt I could tell myself he was safe. Listening in the darkness, I learned the crushing reality that the thickening smoke had warned of: houses were burned, people were dying. People were trapped in townships waiting for the ambulances that would come too late. Whole areas had been razed. On it went, an addictive litany of unconfirmed reports and conflicting information.
By late that night, panicked relatives of missing people were beginning to call up the radio to spread the word that they were looking for someone, in the beginnings of a process that would last for days. For some, weeks. The first tales of desperate flight and survival filtered through. People frustrated by the lack of official information on the path of the fire called in for news – others rang to report ember attack in their area in order to alert communities. And I sat in the near-dark, listening for Bean in case she stirred, venturing outside to check the wind and mostly, just to look up and down the road for signs that my neighbours were at home. I wore jeans and boots and woolen socks despite the forehead-pounding heat, reluctant to drop this one vestige of preparedness.
The radio reports gradually moved from cautionary to pure horror. Marysville, a town I had loved to visit, was gone. They were saying that everyone got out, and then they were saying that everyone was dead and it wasn’t until the morning that we would learn that neither of those things were true. But on that long night, I learned enough to be afraid of what more there would be to hear.
A little before three am, my husband came home to us. He was covered in sweat and ash and choking smoke. He told me he’d seen a man dead in his car. I told him Marysville had been lost. We clung to the bed together, listening to the radio. Sleep was a long time coming.