Today, on the 8th anniversary of the Black Saturday Bushfire, many locals in our small community will gather quietly at the Community Centre to reflect on the loss of loved ones and homes. Some will do this privately with family, while others, like myself, hope to meet up with dear friends who also experienced that similar life changing catastrophe on this day. There will be Prosecco no doubt, and a toast to the Wedge Tailed Eagle, Bunjil, and stories to repeat about our mad lives, lives lived in parallel, indelibly etched in Technicolor, like a Mad Max sequel that has unscheduled, insidious reruns in our dreams. The extreme level of adrenalin coursing through our veins throughout that first post- fire year was almost addictive. Living life on the edge, post traumatic stress brings extreme highs and lows, paranoia and hurt contrasting with overwhelming love and respect for those who helped us through it all.
On February 9, 2009, an unprecedented firestorm, the worst in living memory, destroyed more than 2000 homes and killed 176 people in Victoria. In my nearby community, 69 houses were destroyed and 12 people were struck down. Most of the residents in St Andrews considered themselves well prepared before this event. Many residents belonged to Fireguard groups, and had done some basic training about protecting their homes in the event of a bushfire. The advice, at that time, was encapsulated in the slogan “Stay and Defend”. I am so pleased that the advice has now been radically altered to “Leave and Live”. Understanding the ‘Leave and Live‘ message is based on the principle of early self evacuation. You don’t wait for a fire to descend on the district: you leave on days of Severe Fire Rating early in the morning and only return when conditions change. Every one seems to have a different trigger point when it comes to self-evacuation. Some still have none at all.
People often ask me questions about that day, the first enquiring whether I was there at the time of the fire. I wasn’t. I left early: in fact, I left on Thursday, February the 5th, given that conditions were so extreme at our place. Temperatures were in the high forties that week, and it hadn’t rained for months. The bush was tinder dry. The eucalypt trees continually dropped their leaves, the lack of humidity in the air made stepping outside quite frightening, and the whole countryside seemed to be charged and expectant. I could sense this. We had experienced an ongoing drought for years. I also recalled this fire triangle, a simplified diagram included in a short unit of study in year 10 Geography, a subject I had been required to teach in the preceding years.
The next question always concerns insurance. Yes we were insured but like many others, we were vastly under-insured. After the fire, we received a payment for our contents and destroyed house fairly promptly from our insurance company. The figure was based on our specified premium for contents and house, which had not taken into account rebuilding labour costs, escalated costs of building materials, and the 2009 replacement value of our possessions. If you live in a bush fire prone area, I would advise you to re-calculate these things annually, and to carefully adjust your premiums to reflect current costs and values. Go through each room and consider everything in it. You will be surprised how much it adds up.
The other question people ask is if we rebuilt. No we didn’t. We fully intended to, but knew that this would be a long, drawn out process and would probably cause more stress than we needed. Our grandchildren were then aged 11, 4, 22 months and 12 months old, with another one on the way. I found it almost impossible to care for them in our temporary accommodations. My children, who had grown up in that house and on that mystical land where the moon rose over Mt Everard, often seemed more devastated and disoriented than we were. We decided to sell the land and bought a house in the neighbourhood. It was, in hindsight, a sensible thing to do. We could be an extended family again, a tribe with a home and a big table to share.
People still ask questions and I am happy to talk about it, especially if I can save one life by repeating these fire warnings. That old adrenalin and paranoia creeps up on me from time to time, especially on anniversary days like today. I am sure the fire took its toll on my mental health in many ways, but I can happily say that on extremely dangerous weather days when I evacuate, I take nothing much with me, other than my camera, phone and laptop. I don’t value anything in my new place. I do have new possessions but they hold no intrinsic value. It’s liberating.