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.

 

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.

Intense

The power pole that burnt for five days. St Andrews 2009
The power pole that burnt for five days. St Andrews 2009

There are many things I could say about intensity, having lived through the largest and most intense firestorm ever experienced in Australia’s post-European history. The intense raw emotion and feelings of loss, of home, environment, and neighbours, the intense sensitivity expressed as an overwhelming paranoia and anger to protect ‘our’ burnt bush from invaders with cameras, the intense love for this land, this lovely bush that has not yet recovered.

1980-01-01 00.00.05-7

I have unearthed these photos of the bush, taken shortly after the Black Saturday bushfires here of 2009, in St Andrews, Victoria.  The photos were taken around our paddocks and in the neighbouring National Park.

This time my pictorial story looks at the Australian bush after a fire where the ground burned for days, where old fern covered creek beds and tracks from the gold diggings of the 1850s became exposed and denuded, and where a false Autumn was staged by burnt umber gum leaves, highlighting the predominant colour, black.

St Andrews, February 2009
St Andrews, February 2009
Burning ground, St Andrews, 2009
Burning ground, St Andrews, 20o9
Black Calf Creek,, St Andrews 2009
Black Calf Creek,, bordering our property, St Andrews 2009
St Andrews, February 2009
St Andrews, February 2009
St Andrews , bordering the Kinglake National Park, February 2009
St Andrews , bordering the Kinglake National Park, February 2009

More of my bushfire stories can be found here.