Black Saturday Bushfire Anniversary. A ten year old post.

Today I’m sharing a post I wrote 10 years ago. It was written on February 12, just 5 days after the Black Saturday Bushfire, Febrary 7, in 2009. I remember writing this in my daughter’s house in a confused and anxious state. It appeared on Blogger, a platform that I used back then. I have added these photos: the rest is unedited. After 9 months, all my writing just vanished overnight, thanks to a takeover, without warning, of my registered domain. This piece was mercifully preserved by Pandora Archive- National Library of Australia.¬Ļ¬† I’m sharing it again today because I want my children to keep these records. They need them more than I do. As I re-read it, I can’t help but think of all those people throughout the world who experience displacement on a much grander scale than I did on that day- refugees from war-torn countries forced to flee to other lands, to live in camps for years, those displaced through flood or cyclone, left homeless for years. I understand how fortunate I am. The gifts and financial assistance offered to us was overwhelming during the first year and deserves a post of its own, simply to document and thank every individual and organisation. It’s a huge list.¬†Here’s that original post from February 2009.

Citrus grove, post fire 2009

And the Nightmare Continues

” I have been looking back on my previous posts. That life last week, up until February the 7th, seems so distant already, and yet only 5 days have passed. Each dawn brings the fear of more bad news, more neighbours and friends who are dead. My dawns last week took me to the vegetable garden or fruit trees for the day’s picking, or the chookhouse to gather the eggs. So many beautiful dreams for the future of the vineyard, the olive trees. Colourful imaginings of salads of tomatoes in four colours. The figs, although the leaves had already dropped in the furious heat of the previous fortnight, clung bravely to the branches, reminding me each morning that autumn would be along soon and figs would be part of the menu or preserving plan. My partner had planted Albarino grapes, he was excited by this Spanish variety as they are said to be drought resistant. Each morning or late evening he would move water from one dam to another to ensure that these new grape plantings would have sufficient water to survive this summer’s blasting heat. This was our work, these dreams kept us too busy, we had hopes for a small wine making barn, we planned to preserve the tomatoes in the old Italian way, to breed prettier hens, to pickle our young olives, to cart our excess of produce to neighbours, family and friends. It was work, it was our identity. And that’s what we lost in last week’s inferno.

We are reminded daily of the horror that was last Saturday as the death toll rises. We grieve beside our friends, we hug neighbours and are so pleased to see them again as they walk into the Community Centre. We cry as we get over our embarrassment and accept donations. We laugh sometimes as we model our donated new or second-hand clothes. We are overwhelmed by the generosity and the food that comes from unknown people who arrive at the community centres with car loads of items.

We eat food as a matter of course and are very grateful to be offered it from family and strangers. But nothing tastes the same anymore. Like travelling, you are always waiting to eat something that is normal, homely, nourishing. Displacement from a life, from a lifestyle is not about ownership or things. It’s an identity loss.

We are the lucky ones who left St Andrews early. Part of the nightmare puts me back in the house, unprepared for the inferno, like so many other poor souls who have lost their lives. I can’t remove this fear, it’s disabling.”

Electricity pole took a week to burn out
Vineyard. 2009
We were not allowed back into our properties until after February 10, three days after Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. We had no idea what we would find, what might be left. As it turns out, everything was destroyed except for a few amazing items. One of the most insane things was a red plastic petrol container which sat beside the dam. It survived, with all the petrol intact!

¬Ļhttps://pandora.nla.gov.au/historyachievements.html

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.¬Ļ

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.¬≥ 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.

¬Ļ 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

¬≥ 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.

Black Saturday Anniversary. Thoughts and Thank yous.

Today, nine years ago, my life changed significantly. I’m sure many people have suffered a life changing tragedy at some point too. These events come our way to remind us that life is precious, to test our resilience or perhaps to jolt us out of materialistic complacency.¬†

The anniversary of Black Saturday, the Victorian Bushfire of February 7th 2009, is one I need to honour, privately in my local town but more publicly through my rambling posts. I have written about it previously. And now I choose the day to reflect on my post- bushfire life and make myself look at a few more photos from that time, and I can honestly say that these memories are no longer painful.

Painted by fire

After that disaster, the mantra in Victoria sounded loudly- ‘We will rebuild’. It was a battle cry of sorts, encouraging communities to re-group and re-establish as well as rebuild their homes. We didn’t, although we did stay in our community. We decided that rebuilding on our land would be too slow, costly and painful and so, almost on a whim, we bought a friend’s house in November 2009. It helped us re-settle more quickly. In the early days, I enjoyed living in a place that was not quite home: for years it enabled me to divorce myself from possession,¬† attachment and loss. Things would never be quite the same: the moon rose in a different spot, and the battle with an invasive grass species made gardening a nightmare, the climate was different, the bedroom faced the wrong way. I could come and go and never felt home sick. There was a sense of freedom in that.

Once a wet gully, the bare earth burnt for a week.

Last November, after we returned from a 5 month overseas trip, I finally sensed a deep longing for home, this home. It had taken eight years of re-settlement to develop this love. And today, as I walk around the vegetable garden and orchard and see how much work we’ve done, I realise that we’ve achieved our goal of establishing a small permaculture garden. Years of making compost and creating a micro-climate has paid off. Celery, rocket, bok choy and radicchio self sow in cracks and corners, fennel heads wave in the breeze. Dill, coriander and borage pop up unbidden, while flat leafed parsley, the seed that goes to hell and back before germinating, has finally found home here too. Wild cucumbers ramble along pathways, climbing any structure they can find. Pumpkins, chillies and yet more wild tomatoes arrive after every rain. It has taken these years for the apples, plums, figs and pears to fruit abundantly. An old hazelnut and a quince tree battle for light in one corner while the chooks graze like jungle fowl underneath, tossing about leaf litter or hiding on hot days in dense loganberry patches.

The house itself now seems to have developed an enveloping calm since the intsallation of double glazed windows and better heating. The temperature tends to be fairly even and the front ornamental garden breaks the wind and softens the outlook. There are deep shady patches outside for summer or sun catching windows for winter. There is a sense of peace and calm.

Saving the chimney for the future required an engineer’s report. An old hand made convict brick from my grandparents house at Port Albert features in the cornerstone of the hearth. Chimney by Tony Berry, local alternative builder.
The cottage chimney from the front. This little additional building, illegally built, was loved by the children. When they moved out of home, they first moved here, a stone’s throw away from the main house. Also used for music sessions.

I’ve now found my home, and attachment. It’s been a long journey and perhaps it’s time for a simpler life. I need to let go of the things we’ve accumulated which were so important to us at first. And perhaps I need to let go of this home as well.

Old man gum, favourite tree, did not survive this treatment.

Thank you Tess Baldessin, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner and Bernie Mace for housing us throughout that year of dislocation. You helped us find our feet within our own community, simply by offering us a place to stay. We feel blessed. If only it could be this way for all those in the world who experience dispossession and dislocation through war and natural disaster.

 

Sunday Stills: Wildflowers

Wildflowers are the focus this week on Sunday Stills. As late Autumn becomes darker and colder, there isn’t much happening in our nearby Australian bush so its back to the digital files.

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This photo was taken in late 2009. These wild flowers, Xanthorrhoea, were the first to emerge along our track, providing a stunning white display in contrast to a black and charred environment.  They must have loved the bushfire as they were far more prolific, larger and more spectacular than in any other year.

Some brief notes.

Xanthorrhoea  ( there are 28 species )is important to the Aboriginal people who live where it grows. The flowering spike makes the perfect fishing spear.  It is also soaked in water and the nectar from the flowers gives a sweet tasting drink. In the bush the flowers are used as a compass. This is because flowers on the warmer, sunnier side of the spike (usually the north facing side) often open before the flowers on the cooler side facing away from the sun.

In My Kitchen – February 7, 2014, an Anniversary Story.

In My Kitchen, I dream, plan, write, contemplate and meditate as well as chop,¬†weigh, cook, time, taste and decorate. Friends and family come and go, drink wine, tea or coffee, laugh and gossip. Little ones open the pantry door to inspect the contents. Older ones with longer legs climb up on chairs to lift the lids of secret tins at higher levels. One of our many computers resides in the kitchen; it is a source of vital information during the summer months. We constantly monitor the weather, temperature, humidity and wind speed as well as checking the CFA site ( Country Fire authority). ¬†We listen to ABC radio, our national broadcaster and independent icon, which relays up to date reports of fire and emergency warnings. We are vigilant and at times very uneasy. We self evacuate often. It hasn’t rained for weeks. The land is bleached and too dry. Beauty comes at a price.

As February 7 approaches, the 5th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfire in Victoria, my mind wanders back to my beautiful¬†pre-¬†fire kitchen and the things that were there and the life we enjoyed in it. To be truthful, I think about my old kitchen quite often: it doesn’t need an anniversary to take me back. I can see the long¬†jarrah¬†wood benches, the green and cream Mexican tiles, the moon rising in the East window, the overloaded antique Australian pine dresser, the kookaburra paintings on the walls. I admire the apple green Fowler ware bowls on the shelves and the Italian plates collected from trips to Italy. There is a marble island bench for pastry and breads and a walk in pantry. In the centre of this large room stands a huge antique farmhouse table of kauri pine with black wood turned legs, antique kangaroo chairs, spindle backed chairs still retaining their original paint, and a quaint kangaroo high chair painted red. There is music and dancing, Nanna’s disco,¬†laughter, cooking and food. This beautiful kitchen, as well as the house itself, was destroyed by the bushfire in 2009.

As the anniversary draws near, I reflect on two important perceptions:

  • the overwhelming generosity of Australian people during times of national disaster, and in this case, the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, and
  • The ephemeral nature of material objects and the importance of non attachment.

I look around my current kitchen and am reminded of the generosity of the Australian people who donated goods, some new, some second-hand, money, and labour to those who lost everything in that massive fire storm.  In the first year following the fire, a year of temporary accommodation in converted sheds and house minding, we would visit Bushfire Relief and Support centres, to acquire the basics to begin life again. At first our needs were simple- underwear, second-hand clothing, towels and sheets, toiletries.  With each week, new needs arose- tools, spades, wheelbarrows, buckets to assist in the clean up of our blocks.  Then came the non perishable food items such as canned foods and pasta, the pots and pans, cutlery, crockery and so on. Some of these support centres were small and very personal. One centre in particular, the Hurstbridge support centre, run by the energetic Helen Legg and her team of tireless volunteers, became a special club- a place to chat with others, to share a laugh, a coffee, a weekly breakfast. If anything fabulous was donated to that centre, Helen held a raffle. Sometimes odd donations would arrive, for example a crate load of incontinence pads. Helen and co liked to  parade around wearing these napkins as hats.

Another bushfire relief centre was the size of a warehouse. It was a big day out going to Clayton, as it took three hours to view the massive aisles of donations. Most of the items, except food and toilet rolls, (!) were second-hand. It was a treasure trove. In terms of the kitchen, I found a classic old Kenwood mixer, some wonderful little entr√©e plates once used in first class on Qantas flights, and numerous pots and pans. There were second-hand towels, still with plenty of life left in them, sheets, and toys. ¬†Lost amongst the boxes, I found a little gift wrapped parcel, containing a hand towel, some soap and some pegs. Attached was a neat hand written note. “I hope this will come in handy. Best wishes”. This was typical of all those who donated. It was given so freely and anonymously. Big and small, all was appreciated. I received a wonderful ¬†white platter from a friend of the mother of my son-in-law. I use it all the time. A friend of my niece passed on a colourful purple bowl, made by Leon¬†Saper¬†of St Andrews market, now deceased, knowing that I would have owned some ( she was right). ¬†My niece sent a new copy of The Cooks Companion, by Stephanie Alexander, but made sure it was the original orange one! it is ¬†inscribed, ” Zia, Spring will come again. Louise”. Family members were exceedingly generous with money and donations. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, the Country Women’s Association, The¬†RSCPA¬†– on and on it goes. ¬†People who remark on our Resilience may not know that we owe this to the Australian people.

The second perception, the ephemeral nature of objects and non attachment, was dramatically reinforced during that life changing event. Let’s visit my Kitchen of five years ago. ¬†To be precise, this visit occurs from February 11th as we were prevented from returning to our destroyed homes for some days as the police and army searched for the¬†dead-¬†although some photographers made it¬†their business¬†to jump the control lines and to this day I still feel ambivalent about this. ¬†Some photographers saw beauty in the charred remains of the bush. ¬†We only saw terror. A small digression!

We enter the smashed and gnarled house: nothing appears to have survived. We discover a small terracotta plaque hanging on the crumbling wall above the wine cellar. ¬†It is Balinese and depicts a scene from the Ramayana. I attempt to lift it from the wall. It disintegrates into invisible dust. It doesn’t crack, crumble or¬†break-¬†it simply vanishes. It survived on that wall for three or so days until a human hand touched it.

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My cook books had a dedicated bookcase Рthey are transformed into a snow white blanket. The ashen pages can still be discerned.  The following day, a strong wind removes any evidence of their existence.

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Green depression glass is welded and re -sculpted by fire. Antique Chinese Buddhas lose their heads and ears. A dishwasher sags, there are still items left inside.  The Ilve stove, still young, is a burnt out shell. Plates are smashed and cutlery blackened.  A sink lands on the ground. Pottery enjoys its time in the new kiln, but smashes under the weight of falling walls.

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The photos of My Old Kitchen below are aired today – I haven’t looked at them for a long time. Value what you have but don’t be attached to objects. We have a lend of them for a while, then they vanish as we all must.

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I would like to thank all the Australians who donate during times of disaster. This fundamental goodwill and generosity makes me proud to be Australian. And lastly, thanks to Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, the amazing host of this monthly expose of In My Kitchen. Please visit her site to see other inspiring February kitchens.

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