It is less than an hour’s drive from the city. Haze envelops us as we drive along the Eastern Freeway towards Lilydale and Healesville. On any other day the misty morning would have heralded a fine autumn day. Driving into Lilydale, the countryside looks beautiful. But the smell of smoke belies the beauty and reminds us of the destruction around us. Not autumn haze but ever-present smoke, even now after almost two weeks.
The Lilydale shire offices are a hive of activity. The council chamber has been turned into an operations centre, and the Municipal Emergency Coordination Centre is quietly staffed by people doing serious jobs in comical pinnies. These tabards, by their colour or markings, tell what your job is. Acronyms jostle for positions across men’s chests: MERC, MERO, MRM. To me these jumbled letters instantly mean something. To a stranger, it must look like a weird Scrabble convention.
Rainey, a Red Cross volunteer, sits at her desk, a local representative of a worldwide organisation. Looking relaxed and confident, she chats to the shire employees at her side, taking phone calls, calling questions to others, an absolute equal in the room. She knows everybody. This is her patch.
As soon as we arrive she has questions. She snaps into action, ready to make the most of the expertise that has popped in to say hello. Within moments she has me in a serious discussion with a senior shire person and the police representative. Clearly, Rainey is doing us proud in this room.
Maps of the shire wallpaper one entire wall. Key towns are marked and tagged in permanent marker. The fire complexes are marked in red hatching. There is an awful lot of red hatching. A group of police stands beside us being briefed as Rainey points out her house, and how close the fires got to her. Later, Adam tells me that on the day of the fires, Rainey would take a quick call from him on what was needed, run out and do a quick patrol of her house to extinguish any embers, then pop back in and start with the phone calls to get things moving. It didn’t occur to Rainey to say she wasn’t available, just because the fires were only kilometres from her house. You do what you have to do.
Later, in passing, Rainey mentioned that she would need a day or so off at the weekend because her husband was coming home. Turns out Rainey’s invalid husband had gone into respite care the day before the fires, to give Rainey his carer a well-deserved break. He had been there since because of the fires. Rainey, instead of a quiet week to herself, got two weeks of Red Cross work. It never dawned on her to complain – she was just doing what needed doing.
On we drive towards Healesville, through wine country. The road from Lilydale to Healesville is lined with vines. It will be vintage time soon for many of these farms: the Yarra Valley is famous for its cool-climate wines. The chardonnay and pinot noir grapes will be almost ready to be turned into Domaine Chandon bubbly. Now, with everything cloaked in eerie smoke haze, what happens? Is the crop too damaged to be harvested? Many hectares of vines were destroyed whilst much of the rest of the crop was shrivelled in the intense heat. The local Grape Grazing festival has been cancelled. Almost $15,000 of tourist accommodation was cancelled via the local tourism office alone on the weekend after the fires. The economic destruction is as enormous as the physical destruction.
Healesville itself, on the surface, looks the same. It is a weekend place, a tourist haunt, full of wine tour operators and hot-air-balloon companies and chi-chi boutiques and gourmet food shops. We drive through slowly, keeping an eye out for the relief centre. I point out the Healesville Hotel (best restaurant in town) and Giant Steps winery (best pizza in town) to Catherine as if life has not utterly changed here.
Slowly, a new perspective of Healesville emerges. No longer a place for leisure, it is a siege town, a place of refugees. At the local high school the Salvation Army have set up a material aid point in the gym. Trestle tables are piled high with neatly folded clothes. Gerbil cages, tinned dog food, baby clothes and cot mattresses are stacked by the door. A man offering asbestos clearing kits stands ready to instruct. Two women stand chatting. They are talking about how they can set up a local women’s support group to get through the coming weeks, months, years. People just like me wander through the aisles, browsing, looking for the right size. It all has to go by Saturday. The school needs its gym back.
At the relief centre in the middle of town, another parade of pinnies. Staff from local government, Centrelink, Department of Human Services sit alongside church representatives, legal aid people, insurance company representatives. The man wandering around with the “COUNSELLOR” tabard on is the loneliest person in the joint – couldn’t there be a lower-key way of offering a friendly and sympathetic ear?
Our Red Cross heroes sit in the foyer, four stalwarts from Warburton waiting for people to come and register as safe and well, or inquire about loved ones they have not seen. On top of that, they chat. It’s easy to take an inquiry from somebody or answer a question about the appeal, and then just gently enquire how they are travelling. Brian, Carolyn, Olive and Merv are separated by about 30 years in age from youngest to oldest, but they are a good team. And a Red Cross tabard is a lot easier to be seen talking to than a “COUNSELLOR” tabard.
Olive asks me to answer a few questions for a lady who has passed by. Joanne is a local business woman and the president of the local chamber of commerce. Her house was saved but her business is pretty much bust. With the cancellation of the Grape Grazing festival and the Simply Red concert which was scheduled for the day after the fires, her wine tours business has seen no activity. She wonders who to talk to about a recovery program for local business. She tried to register her business with Red Cross because she thinks this will help: it won’t. We are in the business of missing persons.
I pop in to introduce myself to the shire representative, and pass on a message from the Salvos down to the road to send people down there. The shire woman said that the people visiting the relief centre were not the desperate ones, they were the ones moving on with their lives… so where are the desperate people? Who is looking after them?
At lunchtime we visit Beechworth Bakery, a small chain of bakeries with fabulous pies, beautiful cakes and the best customer service you will experience. It is a favourite haunt of mine. This time I enjoy my steak and pepper pie and bottomless cup of tea whilst watching orange-clad SES men and armed plain-clothes police in tight tee-shirts and gun holsters wander through buying their own cakes, coffee, whatever. Bizarre.
On to Yarra Glen through the vines. Driving down St. Hubert’s Road one field of vines is completely burnt, the next untouched. The clinical path of the fire was never more evident. On and on into more and more blackness. The beauty of the landscape is at odds with the destruction and death it has brought. The starkness of the blackened landscape is reminiscent of the cloak of white a snowfall brings – everything is obliterated and smoothed over somehow. Hay bales wrapped in white plastic have been reduced to tiny puddles of dirty white in the middle of the fields. Majestic gum trees felled by the fires lie juxtaposed in a sea of black. My mind cannot handle the contrast between appreciating the beauty around me and recognising the devastation it has brought.
Yering Station on the right hand side of the Melba Highway has been saved. A grass fire raged right up to the fence of Chateau Yering but the old house remains untouched. We are told a story of a wedding at de Bortoli’s winery on the day of the fires. The wedding guests were holed up for 7 hours, continuing with their wedding celebrations whilst people put out spot fires on the roof. What else could you do?
The old IGA supermarket in Yarra Glen has been turned into a material aid centre. A sign outside on the road invites people to “come in and take what you need”: a sort of reverse supermarket for now.
Down at the racecourse, the staging area is full of police. Two Red Cross volunteers follow the younger ones around, forcing them to eat quartered oranges and keeping special food for coeliacs. They take their role seriously, and they are loved for it.
Back at the office in the late afternoon, I start experiencing overwhelming feelings of anxiety and panic. I attribute this to not being at my desk all day, the workload mounting up, twice as much to do tomorrow. Panic turns to tears as I start to leave the building. I cannot defend myself against the emotion anymore. I break down in full view of the open-plan office outside the ladies toilet, sobbing into a colleague’s shoulder as she wraps her arms around me. Thank heavens I work for Red Cross where this is not seen as bizarre, and there is a trained counsellor within twenty paces. People quietly walk around us, giving us some sort of privacy by appearing to ignore us. But they don’t: in the days ahead I have a steady stream of colleagues swinging by my desk to say hello and check on me. We are all being monitored, looked after, cared for.
Home to silence and tidying up, an antidote to my feelings of helplessness. A clean sink is a clean mind. Sam and Amanda arrive with hugs, a decanted bottle of 12-year-old shiraz cabernet and a piping hot home-made lasagne. Another brief encounter with tears, but soon we drift into inane conversation about reconstructing Ready Steady Cook in suburban Melbourne for competitive gourmet friends, a local source of good manchego cheese and the general uselessness of all tradesmen. After a good night’s sleep I am back in the office, calmer, but still the blackened earth preoccupies me.