One week on, nothing has changed really. One week on, I get on my scooter and ride to work. Same route, same traffic. Same sunshine, same temperature. I get in, make a coffee, log on. Tonight I will go home to our house and relax in the living room. I will watch something light on TV – Boston Legal, House. I will sleep sound and undisturbed.
And yet, everything has changed. The sun still rises in the east but one week on it is a brilliant angry orange-red that can only come from smoke in the air. The sky is still blue, except to the north where a pall of what looks like smog hangs over us. The all-pervading smell of burning wood is everywhere. It ignores air-conditioning units, walls and doors and lifts. Right in the centre of Melbourne it is all anybody can smell. It reminds me of India.
The smoke and smog we can see to the north is ash in the air. It falls like snow on everything, slowly, imperceptibly, even this far from the fireground. Days after the worst fire day in Australian history and miles from danger, I put my clean laundry out to dry and within an hour it is covered with a light dusting of pale grey ash.
Not too far from here, people are dead. Survivors are huddled together in relief centres, sleeping in tents, clinging to their families, knowing that some of their loved ones, neighbours, friends, are dead. Their houses have been burnt to the ground in minutes – thousands of them. Some literally ran through flames to get out as the fireball raced towards them. In one small town it is expected that at least one hundred of the five hundred occupants will eventually be declared dead. On Saturday as the temperatures reached the high forties, people not far from here hid underwater in their ponds to escape being burnt alive.
This is not in some faraway place. Much of this happened within an hour’s drive of Melbourne. Whole country towns have been burnt to the ground, disappeared. It is as if you drove to Enniskerry outside Dublin, or perhaps Godalming in England, at ten in the morning, and by five in the evening it was gone. Everything: houses, schools, shops, community centres, even the fire stations themselves.
Last Saturday I went to work in the police’s State Emergency Response Coordination Centre, a liaison officer for my friend and state manager, Adam. Saturday was projected to be the hottest day on record, and a day with such high fire risk that it made a mockery of all previous charts. It is hard to remember now that I sat there for the first few hours surfing, updating my Facebook page, watching Sky News on TV, calling Adam complaining of boredom. Orlando came to join me around one o’clock: as a volunteer himself he was to assist me should things get busy. I didn’t know what he was going to do all day.
About an hour after he arrived, the energy levels went up in the room. The Country Fire Authority page we had on permanent scroll-down suddenly came alive. Within about an hour there were quite a few fires going. One fire in Bunyip went from eleven, to thirty, to forty, to seventy fire pumps in about two hours. Last time I checked it had gone to over a hundred. Can you even imagine a fire so big it takes over a hundred pumps? By late afternoon there were eight major fires going, and countless smaller ones. Grass fires, forest fires, the odd house or shed being burnt ahead of the fire front by burning embers travelling up to ten miles ahead. The Victoria Roads guy sitting beside me told us around three-thirty that the temperature had peaked at 47.4C on the Westgate bridge. We were sweltering ourselves in an air-conditioned building that couldn’t take the heat.
Next morning as I arrive for a briefing at the state emergency coordination centre across town, the Prime Minister arrives too. I stand beside my Police colleague on the street, a silent welcoming committee as the big black bodyguard carrier speeds in followed by the PM’s gleaming white car, registration plate C 1. We stand in front of the TV cameras as he rushes past, and follow him into the building. He stands in the lift, grim-faced, surrounded by his entourage and us, a gaggle of uniforms.
By next day the reports of fatalities are coming in. On Sunday night the TV is telling us that fourteen are dead: my guys in the Police coordination centre are saying it is more like forty. By Monday morning there is talk of over two hundred dead. I cannot fathom this. Doesn’t Australia do bushfires well? Don’t country folk know about preparing for fire, about deciding to stay or go? How can this be happening?
Thousands of kilometres of fire front are uncontrolled. Fire crews limit themselves in many areas to simple “asset protection”: fending off the fire from individual houses and buildings. It is all they can do. Weathermen talk of the fires actually creating their own weather patterns. Smoke and ash from the fires become such a force in themselves that they develop into pyro-cumulus clouds and start dry lightning strikes, exacerbating the situation that created them. Eileen flies in from Sydney into a sudden vertical wall of smoke and cloud, the plane falling silent as the smell of smoke envelops them and the passengers look down on what is left of tree country.
By Monday we have over four hundred volunteers in the field, helping people in about twenty different places. By Tuesday morning these have been joined by another three hundred people or more manning telephones all over the country, taking calls from people seeking their loved ones, trying to reconnect families. We work through the night. Our individual working hours go through the roof: fourteen hours a day becomes the norm suddenly, with twenty hours a day not unheard of for one or two of us. The battle rhythm kicks in: up at 6.30am, into uniform, onto the bike and into work for 7.30am. Meetings, running around, trying to find skilled people to take on the management roles, fielding questions from a hundred different places, taking calls from the public offering us everything: teabags, billiard tables, computers, blankets, pallets of olive oil, money, anything. The offers are overwhelming and become part of the problem rather than the solution for a few days: the luxury of being inundated with offers and good wishes from people who are desperate to help somehow. Home no earlier than 9pm and it is often much later.
We work well together as a team. People from all over the country come together again, as we have so often before, and the shorthand kicks in. We get ratty and snap at each other at times, but tempers rarely fray seriously. We grab a cup of coffee here and there, try to walk with a bottle of water to keep hydrated. We quietly check on each other, making sure each of us is holding up. Late-night cryptic Facebook messages are inspected for signs of fatigue, stress, trauma. Finding time for a quick sandwich some days becomes an impossible task. We joke that we have been dropped into an episode of the West Wing, having meetings and making decisions whilst rushing down corridors. Once I catch myself asking “What do you need?”. I am turning into CJ Cregg.
We eat dinner huddled together at a little meeting table: Thai food becomes the favourite. We try to do things properly. We do our situation reports, and try to find some rigour and discipline in our meetings. But we are all exhausted. And we are nothing: it is the volunteers out there day after day, night after night, surrounded by traumatised people, sleeping in tents themselves, that we are supporting. They are at the pointy end.
I see no TV. My working hours are too long. We have no cable TV in the building. Just as well: nobody has time to stand and watch. I have grown up in a time when nothing has really happened until you see it on TV: the Berlin Wall coming down, the death of Princess Diana, the twin towers collapsing. A colleague commented that when her father died she fully expected to see it on the TV news – she was an adult at the time. I am in the weird position of being fully caught up in the event, and yet completely divorced from it at the same time. All I do for twenty hours a day is think bushfires, volunteers, registration and inquiry telephone lines, resources, resources, resources. The rest of Australia is consuming TV footage from all sides. Adam our state manager spends half of the first four days just talking to TV and radio. I am chased by a radio channel from Ireland looking for an interview with the Irish Red Cross woman. And yet I see nothing myself.
When I come home in the evening, Orlando polices my precious hour or so before bed. Uniform off as soon as I walk in the door. TV channel changes anytime there is any mention of bushfires or the aftermath. He allows me perhaps one idle comment about my day, then no more. I complain to him but he is right. He physically imposes a barrier between work and home, and as a result I sleep better each night than many of my colleagues at work.
We laugh about some things. Activation chic is all the rage: our uniform is beige (sorry, stone) or red. Team Beige is on the rampage. Are you wearing your polo shirt or business shirt today? What are you teaming it with – capri pants, summer skirt, cargo pants, jeans if you are a maverick? How come everybody mysteriously turns up in the same thing one morning? John wears his red uniform baseball cap backwards and manages to look like a six-foot kid. Martin cuts a jelly snake in half and puts a bit in each ear so it looks like it is on its way through his head. We find levity where we can. There is precious little about.
One week on, I sit alone in my living room trying to take in all that has happened in the last eight days. I sip a glass of wine and try to imagine losing everything around me in minutes. Not only my own home, but all the streets around me: the hospital next door, the florists and the school around the corner, the Western Bulldogs footie ground at the end of the street. I am grateful for another chance to help my community, to know that what I do all day at work does make a difference to the response effort, and hopefully to some people’s lives in the end. I am proud to wear my Red Cross uniform and I work hard because I know this is what life is about: the power of humanity.