Wednesday, February 11, 2009

After the air ignited

I have to say that I struggled for a long time with this post, as I found the horror of the past week's Victorian bushfires and deaths very troubling and emotionally painful, and wondered long and hard whether, and how, to put into words what I had learned of these events. I've decided to go ahead and post anyway. I hope it is read in the spirit of caring, concern and bearing witness with which I wrote it. The image is from flickr.

UPDATE : A happy ending after all
I have recently learned that C's house survived the fire in Kinglake after all! Please note he changes below. [Updated 4.10pm Tuesday 17 February 2009]

When I spoke to my friend C late on Sunday morning, he still didn't know if the house he'd been building for his family was still standing after the firestorm that swept through Kinglake last weekend.

He thought there was a "99% chance" it was gone, considering all the houses across the road from his – bar one – had burned down. However, he held on to a glimmer of hope that it survived. His neighbour and neighbour's son stayed to protect their house and saved it.

With the roadblocks and other restrictions on movement to the area, it was a while later when he found out that the house was gone.
Thanfully, C, his partner and their three-year-old daughter were safe at home in Melbourne's north-western suburbs when the fires hit. He hadn't gone up to Kinglake to check on the nearly completed house as he'd not expected the fire danger to be so severe or immediate. In this case, it must be a blessing.

[Update: C has recently
told me that he'd received incorrected information from a neighbour that the house was destroyed, and that he learned late last week that his house survived! He's been up to Kinglake to check it out and it's still standing.]

Unfortunately for the many, many dozens of Kinglake residents who lost their homes, and the 35 who lost their lives, the horrifyingly extreme nature of this bushfire was not anticipated – not the immensity of it, not the suddenness with which it changed direction toward Kinglake, not the speed nor ferocity with which it hit.

My heart was in my mouth when I woke on Sunday to read and hear the news of the fires hitting Kinglake (and the rest of Victoria), as I knew C was building there, and over the years I'd known people who had lived in that area. I was relieved to hear Chris and his family safe and well.

But I was also worried for another friend and her partner who live in St Andrews, another township near Kinglake and famous for its alternative weekend market. While I was quite unsettled and concerned that I couldn't get them on the phone either Sunday or Monday as the line was disconnected, by Tuesday when I'd heard about the high number of deaths in St Andrews – 22 at last count – I was panicking.

I called around a number of 3rd parties who knew these friends and finally heard from someone that they were safe. I finally spoke to my friend L on Tuesday afternoon (their telephone had been disconnected due to a stuff-up by the phone company, rather than the fires!) and learned that while they were safe and well, they had survived a close call. The stories of what she saw were unbelievably shocking – and she found it quite shocking, like nothing she'd seen before, and she'd previously experienced 3 other bushfires!

She told me how on
Saturday they vigilantly watched the fires in the distance advancing on them, and were putting out burning embers on the roof and in the gutters that had rained from the sky all afternoon. She had watched the fire advance on a white weatherboard farmhouse on the top of a hill but leave it unscathed as it burned down the hill, and inexplicably leave it intact yet again when the wind change drove the fire back up the hill, and how that house now stands starkly white on a blackened hill.

She told me of how they watched as the very air ignited from the extreme heat and ferocity of the fire. How where as the top of one hill was ablaze, the air at the top of the neighbouring hill suddenly exploded in a ball of flames and set that hill ablaze. The fire was still some 3 kms away or so, sure to destroy their home, and they were prepared to leave when it go too close when the late change came through and started blowing the fire in another direction and their home was saved.

She learned the next day, as the rest of us did, what destruction and death that weather change wraught as it drome the firestorm front to the neighbouring townships and communities.

Today we are being told that while the official death toll from the bushfires across Victoria stands at 181, already the worst natural disaster in Australia's history, we should expect the death tol to climb past 200 and nearer 300.

But Kinglake and St Andrews, while having amongst the highest death tolls in the state, are not the only communities affected. The township of Marysville has been scorched off the face of this earth, and the community is trying to come to terms with the devastation and loss of life there, while there have been terrible deaths and destruction in townships from Healesville in the Yarra Ranges to Churchill in Gippsland.

As you can see from MrTomTom's images of a family member's home destroyed by the fire in Yarra Glen, the devastation is frequently extreme and total.

I think this disaster and tragedy is going to stay with us for a long time, as we come to turns with the deaths, the environmental destruction, the loss of homes, jobs and businesses, the trauma experienced by the survivors and emergency workers, and the terrible injury to our collective psyche as we absorb this through the non-stop media coverage.

It is going to take a great effort and a lot of time to to make sense of this all. Though I have to say that David Tiley has made admirably insightful and eloquent efforts to do so. And Penni Russon's tale (her family and home in St Andrews are unscathed, thank goodness) gives great insight into the nerve-wracking business of waiting to see if the fires move toward them
again. Penni and her partner have decided, quite understandably, they will leave their home again at the first signs of renewed danger.

I wish them, and all others on a danger footing, and dealing with the grief and trauma of this tragedy, my very best wishes. And to all my other readers too. Stay safe and well.

[Image on flickr, under creative commons license. I think it's a screenshot from Channel 7's TV program Sunrise]

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At February 16, 2009 8:46 pm, Blogger parlance said...

Hi, Mark
thanks for posting this. For some reason I have a compulsion to check what people on the Net are writing about the fires. I think it's a desire to know that people elsewhere are thinking about us.

How much stronger must this impulse be in people who lost houses and friends and family.

We have to remember that the suffering will go on for ages.


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