Black Saturday Bushfire,10th Anniversary. Finding a Way to Memorialise.

Memorialisation takes on greater significance and more noble heights during milestone years. After one, five, ten, twenty- five years and so on, commemoration of significant events in history or in our personal lives is important to remember, celebrate, mourn or commiserate and in some instances, to learn. As Victorians begin February, they are being presented with an intensification of 10th anniversary events commemorating the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 7, 2009, the day that a firestorm of unseen proportions killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and left more than 6000 people homeless. These are the figures that scream the loudest. Further facts and figures reveal the impact on the whole State.¹

The commemorative events are many and will appeal to different sections of society: academic presentations at a symposium, a flurry of new documentaries and films, books, interviews, art and photography exhibitions, talks, church services, meetings, newspaper articles and many private commemorative get- togethers. Most of the fire survivors I know will avoid these events. I can’t help thinking that there is a considerable level of opportunism in the timing of some of these new books and films which deal with this national disaster.

One of my deepest residual psychological blocks from 2009 is the issue concerning those who overstepped the mark in terms of opportunism and lack of sensitivity. Within days of losing my house, the vultures were out – first came the tourists with cameras, but they were quickly dispelled thanks to the installation of road blocks soon after the fires. Then came the media, artists and photographers. Some behaved appallingly during those early days, eager as they were to cash in on the spectacular nature of the event and, in the process, make a name for themselves. During a time when people were mourning the loss of loved ones, or their homes, their way of life, the ‘recorders of bushfire’ were on a mission to get in early, at a time when the army was still scouring the hills for bones of the dead, when the helicopters above buzzed like a scene from Apocalypse Now, and when ancient eucalypt trees glowed red in slow death, the white ashen ground still hot.

Media journalists at the time lacked an ethical framework for dealing with a national disaster of this size.² They were simply told to go; get the scoop, the best story. Road barriers were often ignored, especially at night if unmanned: in the day time, fabricated identities were used to gain entry. Some behaved like paparazzi, while others, when faced with the enormity of human tragedy they witnessed, revealed respect, restraint and empathy in their reportage.

Now that ten years have passed, I need to purge this anxiety, a sort of PTSD, from my memory. That’s the plan. I did try to do this back in July 2009. I took up the offer of 10 free psychology sessions at a nearby clinic. I had a rather naive plan in place- the sessions would help remove all that adrenalin from my brain, which included this distaste for these bushfire vultures. I lasted only 3 sessions. I wanted to talk about fire issues: my anger at telcos, bureaucratic nightmares, the insensitivity of media: my psychologist was heading somewhere else. I lost faith in the process when I watched her eagerly jot down some notes after I mentioned the word ‘MOTHER’. Just another Freudian obsessed counsellor. I left, not in a huff, but with all my residual angst firmly intact.

I won’t be attending any major memorial events, I won’t be looking at any documentaries or films with bushfires roaring in the background: I have never watched any TV news or documentaries dealing with fire over the last ten years. Some of these blazing reports are now appearing on my Facebook feed: Facebook, everyone’s pocket TV. I won’t be sitting in the local hall watching the latest film offering, and I won’t be attending any art exhibitions portraying bushfire. No churches for me, no gatherings in silence with a cuppa. No trip up into the hills to see how my old bush block is recovering. But I do plan to do a few things on the day and during the following year. I will look out for an eagle in the sky. It was mighty Bunjil circling in the overheated and smoky sky who warned my dearest friend to leave her home on that day. I will also visit a local gathering in Hurstbridge, one being organised by Helen Legg, an amazing and dedicated volunteer who gave most of her days to assisting those who had been affected by bushfire for two years: a drink is on the agenda. I will give thanks, once again, to all those who assisted my family after that National Disaster. I also plan to read a lot more about fire. I’ll start with works by Stephen J Pyne.³ It’s time to learn from sources that are objective and well researched, especially as the reality of global warming makes wildfire more common around Australia and around the globe, in places that have never experienced them before.

Old man tree with tin and wire.

¹ Wikipedia Stats included in full here.

  • 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt
  • 7,562 people displaced
  • Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including:
    • 2,029+ houses
    • 59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc.)
    • 12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station)
    • 399 machinery sheds, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds, 729 other farm buildings
  • Agricultural and horticultural losses:
    • Over 11,800 head of livestock,consisting of 2,150 sheep, 1,207 cattle, and an unknown number of horses, goats, alpacas, poultry, and pigs
    • 25,600 tonnes (25,200 long tons; 28,200 short tons) of stored fodder and grain
    • 32,000 tonnes (31,000 long tons; 35,000 short tons) of hay and silage
    • 190 ha (470 acres) of standing crops
    • 62,000 ha (150,000 acres) of pasture
    • 735 ha (1,820 acres) of fruit trees, olives and vines
    • Over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) of boundary and internal fencing destroyed or damaged
    • 7,000 ha (17,000 acres) of plantation timber
  • 98,932 ha (244,470 acres) of parks damaged, 90 per cent of which was national park. It was claimed that 950 local parks, 70 national parks and reserves, and over 600 cultural sites and historic places were impacted or destroyed
  • 3,921 ha (9,690 acres) of private bushland
  • Over 55 businesses destroyed
  • Electricity supply was disrupted to 60,000 residents
  • Several mobile phone base stations and telephone exchanges damaged or destroyed

² https://apo.org.au/node/19735

³ Stephen J Pyne’s works are listed here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_J._Pyne

A film I may consider watching might be Afterburn- in the Tigers Jaws. ‘The Steels Creek community invited the research team to use them as a case-study because they believed that something lasting had to come from this terrible tragedy and future communities would benefit from partnering with the academic and creative industries. Afterburn has the potential to influence future policy development at all levels of government in the areas of collaborative community recovery and the long-term impact of trauma on communities and individuals.’

On my block in April, 2009. Autumn had softened the disaster zone. I’m wearing a red armband, as did all those who lost their homes. This indicated our identity to the police staffing roadblocks. I wore it for nine months and still have it tucked away.

I have great admiration for a few journalists whose work stood out from the pack during Year 1. Thanks to Ian Munro of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and to Gary Hughes, a St Andrews resident and Warkley award winner, who wrote so poignantly of his own survival. And to Jon Faine, radio presenter from the ABC, whose broadcasting efforts and interviews, particularly in the Strathewen community, were remarkable.

25 thoughts on “Black Saturday Bushfire,10th Anniversary. Finding a Way to Memorialise.”

  1. At the La Trobe forum on Friday, Stephen Pyne was fabulous to listen to. His knowledge on the history of fires is so interesting. Such a learned man. He is coming to oz for some writers festivals soon. I think Bendigo was mentioned. Afterburn trailer looked amazing esp the input from Rob Gordon.
    Looking fwd to seeing you on Thurs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must be you Helen. I would have liked to hear Stephen Pyne but it’s still hard for me to be in some of those places. I’m glad you can report that it was valuable- everything I’ve read by him to date is really worthwhile. Yes, AFterburn also sounds noteworthy and not sensationalist. xxx

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    1. This one has been brewing for 10 years Maree. Now that some of my paranoia is out there, there’s a chance I can move on. I’m not sure that something this personal has much appeal to anyone, but then, I don’t care any more. But I am very pleased that you read it dear friend. xx

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  2. I remember it all in frightening clarity but only ‘saw’ it from the ‘other’ side. Thank you more than words can express for the thoughts you have penned to go into history. I hope and pray that at long last you will be able to close the door . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this blog three times, each one a different impact. Extraordinary emotions, insights and pure purging. So deeply thoughtful and intense. More power to you for sharing, my deepests thoughts and respect are with all that suffered. Francesca you are an amazing woman and I’m so proud to have you as a true mate.
    Peter

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Francesca, I never realised the you lost your home in these tragic fires. My heart goes out to you. Like Eha, I saw it from the ‘other side’, listening in horror on the radio. I do hope Bunjil, and your tranquil garden, can bring you some peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am very touched by this recount of the events of 9th February 2009. It is heart-breaking so many people lost their lives, homes and livelihoods from these fireballs. I remember the day so well while walking back from Highpoint to my car on the bitumen the wind was so hot I could hardly breath and the car was like a furnace. I had just had coffee with my best friend Margaret and was shocked how as hot as Hades it was outside seeing it was only morning. I can’t believe the same thing happened in California a few months ago – an absolute catastrophe – so many people died and hundreds of villages burnt. The beautiful area looked like a wasteland afterwards. This should not have happened after our awful experience. A get-together with these Californians to talk about it would not go astray.

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  6. Anything I say will be a platitude. We had a lot of that kind of journalism after the Indian Ocean tsunami. It is appalling even when you are sitting almost a thousand kilometers away and watching the news on TV. I cannot imagine what it is like for survivors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some friends of mine experienced the tsunami in Sri Lanka. They were tourists caught up in it, but of course nothing like the effects on the local population. Rhe came back here and raised funds for a year for the the Sri Lankan survivors. I could move on in silence but, un giving air to my PTSD, I encourage others to do the same. Being silent is a recipe for disaster. Thanks I.J.K for your thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I do wish my California would communicate with Australia about wildfires and their prevention. It has been horrendous these past three summers. My heart goes out to you. We are even still feeling the results this winter from smoke inhalation. Asthma cases are on the rise, especially following a chest cold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Australian Californian collaboration on wildfires has been in place for many years now. We learn from each other. Australian teams often assist in California and vice versa. I think the dialogue between the two countries also now centers around self evacuation versus stay and defend, trauma counselling, as well as defense and prevention. It’s heartening to see this cooperative approach. Stephen Pyne, the leading writer on fire issues is American (not sure what state), and tours Australia now… yes, post fire health issues are ongoing here too. Cheers Liz.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I really can’t begin to imagine what you must have gone through over the past 10 years, and I hope that being able to express your feelings about the exploitation will help you find some peace. I’m appalled that your sessions in the early days were with a psychiatrist with their own agenda – something that could have been so helpful should never have become a source of more distress. I’ve never experienced the sort of loss that you, and so many other people, did (and have done more recently in California), so all I can say is that every time I read your posts about the event I am incredibly moved… and that’s the sort of “reporting” that is meaningful to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you Francesca for the courage to open-up to your bloggers of your deep personal feelings on that terrible fire 10 years ago. While I have never experienced such catastrophy in my life I certainly felt some of your pain and those of other residents in the aftermath. Unfortunately, in this day and age the media are always at the forefront of any such disasters in their rush to tell the world. However, when I contemplated your views I thought well if it wasn’t for the media then I wouldn’t have known how disasterous it was. Australian’s generously donated cash, homes, caravans, furniture, clothing, food, personal supplies, medical supplies etc etc to help the residents in their recovery. If we hadn’t seen what the media beamed onto our televisions perhaps the donations would not have come.

    I always remember my Mum saying that the majority of Australian’s living in the southern states had no idea of the bombing of Darwin by Japan during the second world war. Can you imagine if this was to happen today and we in NSW, Vic, SA, WA, Qld & Tas did not know about it?

    My best wishes to you for your post-fire recovery – not that you will ever forget just that you may accept the situation and do your upmost to live happily and healthy in the years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yes I agree with you wholeheartedly about the media . Without them, that enormous generosity shown by the Australian people would not have occurred. The media is crucial in reporting war and national disaster. I guess I became annoyed in the early days when some reporters and photographers appeared to be a bit too gung ho, and insensitive.
      Thanks also for your well wishes. I am a happy person mostly, though am ready to accept that some scars don’t heal.

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  10. Dear Francesca, when we moved house last June I seemed to lose all my normal internet connections, and I thought you had stopped blogging. Just last week when holidaying with friends in Dinner Plains, we were talking about the Black Saturday Bush Fire and what that did to the communities involved. I remember one post of yours where you quoted from an Ed Sheeran song, Fire on the Mountain, and I remember a line about “hollowed out souls”. My thoughts at that time were that it must have been how it felt. Nobody knows how to deal emotionally with such a disaster or what to do with the awful upsurge of grief and pain, and I don’t think time mends those scars either, but I think that one does gradually learn how to deal with the emotions; like losing someone you love – there will always be a time when a sob comes up from your boots, seemingly out of nowhere. I had reason a short time ago to visit a psychologist and I was affronted when he seemed to leap on the word “Father” – he needed a box to tick when I really wanted him to validate what had happened and give me strategies to work my way through it. So, my heart goes out to you and all in your community at this milestone along your way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan, so good to hear from you, I was worried about you as I hadn’t heard from you fir so long. I always love your comments and this one is so touching. Sounds like we had very similar experiences with our psychology visits. Thanks for your thoughts. These purge posts help a lot.

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  11. I don’t believe what you are feeling is uncommon, that feeling of being further violated after an injurious event by the well intentioned or overzealous, at best. Even 10 years on, its memorialisation and accoutrements would mostly appeal, I imagine, to those without a direct connection to the event. Your personal approach… relieving yourself of those words too long unsaid, and boundary setting seems a way more beneficial and meaningful way of recognising -what is simply a milestone of time for those not directly affected- actual ongoing recovery… which is so often infinite and immeasurable.

    Liked by 1 person

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