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Black Saturday 8 years on. Questions and Answers

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.

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View from our driveway after the fire.

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.

Making a birthday speech for someone. My old house, full of stuff.
Making a birthday speech for someone in the family. My old house, before the fire, full of stuff.

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.

fire triangle - an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools
The fire triangle – an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools.

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.

special brick
Special brick. This handmade convict brick came from my grandparents chimney in Port Albert. We used it as the keystone brick in a chimney built by our stonemason friend, Tony.
Teh footprint of our old house. We saved one of the handbuilt chimneys in teh separate cottage. after getting an engineers report . It is still there today,.
Part of the footprint of our old house. We saved one of the hand-built chimneys in the separate cottage. The local Council wanted it removed but we contracted an engineer to provide a safety report. It is still there today and I hope it can stay. We stacked up all the usable mud bricks for future use.

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.

My other posts on this topic are here and here.

40 thoughts on “Black Saturday 8 years on. Questions and Answers”

  1. That was a nightmare of a day. We were trapped in a B and B outside Marysville, and couldn’t believe the destruction that met us in the light of day. I can’t imagine how people can go back to resume their lives after such adevestating event. Thank you for sharing your feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thinking of you Francesca on this day. I never realised you were a part of that devastating day – I will never forget how hot it was on those days either. Thank you for sharing your story and baring your emotions to us. Be kind to yourself xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am always at a loss to know what to say to anyone who has confronted bushfire on such a personal level. Big hugs Francesca, you’re a courageous woman! We were too close for comfort during Ash Wednesday, close enough for the smell of burning eucalypts to still send adrenalin coursing through my veins.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank goodness you evacuated and thank goodness people are beginning to see that they must do so, Leave and Live is a very good slogan. These fires are terrifying, we have been near them in the south of France and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. My prayers are with you all today. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such a heart breaking tale. It is sad about all those things lost in the fire, but you have since proven that home is wherever loved ones gather, although the memories from that time and place will always be with you. It must have taken a lot of courage to start again. Nonetheless, glad the hand-built chimney survived (long may it prosper!) and great that the new owners are actually using the pizza oven.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What a horrendous time for you and your family. And it must be both liberating and sad to not have the connection to physical objects any longer. Those wild fires are so frightening, we have had them just inland in Northern California the past couple of summers. Driving through the devastation is heartbreaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reading this post a few days ago, the feelings your words & pictures evoked weren’t able to be put into words, they were deep & heavy… then day-to-day intervened.
    I have upped-sticks several times in my life by mostly by choice. Those times were challenging before they were liberating. But to have it thrust upon you so irrevocably…
    I wonder, can you, do you ever travel in your mind -like me- and find yourself in a room or the neighbourhood, just as it was, visiting yourself?

    Like

  8. Francesca, I can’t imagine your pain. Every time I sweat the little things I try to bring perspective into my life. ‘This is not life changing,” I tell myself, yet still worry about whatever it is. What you went through, was life changing, but you have survived and thrived. Congratulations.

    Liked by 1 person

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