marysville three months on

Autumn has come in all its glory. With the drought, everything is desiccated already, but the long shadows of the April days gilt the edges of the red and yellow leaves in the Yarra Glen and up the Maroondah Highway.

In late afternoon a tall majestic avenue of bright yellow poplars line the road from Alexandra to Marysville. In the hills around us the low sunshine makes everything glow gold. But almost everything is already burnished copper and gold, if not from the season, from the fires.

Somehow because of the time of year it does not assault the senses as much as it did three months ago. We approach what is left of Marysville cautiously and respectfully, driving slowly past ridge after ridge of burnt forests, exposing the rocky land beneath. Aroborists have marked the condemned trees with white x marks. The buzz of chainsaws fill the air. People have died here and we remember.

The levelled houses begin. A pile of corrugated iron here, a lone chimney there. A destroyed home by a stream is surrounded by fern trees, growing again, livid green against the black. We grow quieter as we reach the town. Stopping at the little roundabout, it looks like a deserted, disassembled movie set. A single petrol station sign here, an unblemished church there by the river. The bakery lives on untouched. The resort hotel has been bulldozed away. A wishing well stands untouched in what used to be a garden.

We drive down deserted streets, our only companions emergency services people and the odd construction worker. I hear the words echoing in my head again from twelve weeks ago: Marysville is gone. As with Kinglake, it does not seem real until I see it with my own eyes.

In an old church campsite they are building granny flats for families to live in. They will house forty families here soon. Don gives us a tour of the tidy little bungalows: copper flyscreens to withstand an ember attack, air-conditioning and all mod cons in the little kitchen. Not bad. The village headman’s house has already been allocated. An embryonic playground is taking shape. Department of Human Services, Centrelink and others are already sitting waiting the Community Hub offices. If you build it, they will come.

The deputy head of the reconstruction authority rummages in my box of trauma teddies looking for one with Collingwood colours. Major General David Cantwell is younger than I’d expected, with sandy hair, an engaging smile and sensible army boots to trump my city kitten heels. He looks like a kind man. With him and Christine Nixon in charge, surely we won’t go far wrong.

The sun dips in the sky and the shadows grow longer. The blackened gum trees are emblazoned with a fuzz of vibrant green. It is difficult to comprehend how it will all grow back, but it will. Nature has already begun her regeneration. We just need to figure out how to start ours.

late summer on buller

Orlando and I don’t ski so we have never been to the Victorian High Country. A late summer weekend was the perfect opportunity to visit Mount Buller and see some spectacular scenery without having to don skis and point ourselves downhill. Those of you who know my horror of descending even gentle hills on foot will realise why I shall never ski.

Driving out the Hume Highway on an early Saturday afternoon, we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. The journey took us past the edges of some of the worst of the February bushfires, with Kilmore to our immediate west and the two large complex fire grounds to our east. All along the Hume from the Whittlesea turnoff was a sea of black. The road signs ran like a rollcall of the worst days: Wandong, Kilmore, Whittlesea, Kinglake, Clonbinane. We could see the place where the Hume had been closed on that Saturday afternoon. Houses not far from the highway remained inexplicably untouched by fire amongst blackened forest. Others had not been so lucky, and the rubble was clearly visible from the road.

Again I was touched by the terrible beauty of it. The twisted black tree trunks were interspersed with auburn, the trees which did not burn but were scorched by the heat. At times it was like a beautiful autumn scene until you remembered that these changing colours did not herald a change of season.

Stopping at Yea, I was not sure what to expect. Yea hosted one of the main staging areas into the fire ground, but on this holiday Saturday it was just a regular country town. Bikers lined the streets in search of good coffee. Local families pottered around doing a bit of shopping. We stopped in the local greasy spoon for a spot of breakfast before heading out the road again.

From here the scenery got spectacular. Up through the Strathbogie Ranges we went, along a winding road following the Goulbourn river below. Vineyards nestled in the shadow of the hills. At times it reminded me of Wicklow: Glenasmole, Glendalough. I fell asleep and missed Lake Eildon, a reservoir built in the fifties which has been empty now for a number of years. On our way home I would see that the lake bed had well-worn footpaths, large trees and a thriving ecosystem. I wonder when we will see it filled again.

Mansfield seemed a prosperous enough town, with chichi coffee shops and plenty of ski supplies. This is the last stop before the ascent to Mount  Bulleritself. On our way out of town the landscape turned golden again but for a different reason. This is the real High Country, with rodeos on Saturday nights and mile after mile of grazing land turned yellow-gold by the sun and the drought.  Actually cattle grazing has been banned since around 2002, because it was believed the cattle were damaging the soil and threatening rare alpine flora. As the road stretched straight into the distance and the mountains ahead, I could see why people love this area so much.

dsc004901

The road up Mount Buller is ten miles long and winding. Hairpin bends had names like Hell Corner. Crazy cyclists descended on racers, full lycra gear and a mad look on their faces. Even more crazy were the ones cycling uphill. Their faces had more of a look of excruciating pain. There was not much of a view because of the forest surrounding us but we could tell we were getting pretty high. Mount Buller is by no means the tallest mountain in Australia or even Victoria, but it is still one and a half times higher than Ben Nevis and almost twice as high as Carauntoohill.

The village of Mount Bulleris almost at the summit. Designed as a ski resort, it centres on a small town square with a clock tower and a bronze statue of a mountain cattleman. There are spectacular views of the alpine national park in every direction. Our resort, the Breathtaker, was on the southside of the town with amazing views south-west along craggy peaks and ridges.

dsc004971

Not so breathtaking was the tiny one-bedroom apartment witha view of the back of the building, rendered even more inexplicable by the fact that all the rooms with mountain views remained unoccupied for the whole weekend. Never mind: we had a comfortable if compact base and that’s all we needed.

Out on the dodgy hotel mountain bikes for a recce of the town, I almost lost my life a couple of times due to lack of brakes. At every turn another stunning view welcomed us. Above our heads everywhere were ski lifts, all but one closed for the summer season. The remaining open chair lift was mainly for the use of the downhill mountain bikers, which is what Orlando would turn into the following day.

dsc005111

Back at the hotel we sat on the terrace with an indulgent hot chocolate watching the changing colours of the mountain and making our plan for the following day. As the sun hung low in the sky, we drove quickly to the summit car park and yomped the last steep 500m to the summit, where we were greeted with 360 degree views of mountains and plains draped in mist and sunshine, turning the land alternately blue and reddish-gold. We sat at the fire hut and drank in the views. My mind briefly turned to the bushfires again, as I wondered what the watchman saw unfolding beneath him on the 7th of February. None of the area around Mount Buller was threatened that day, but he would have seen the smoke and possibly the flames of the worst of the fires south of him. This day, though, all was peaceful and beautiful. We sat for an age taking it all in.

dsc005261

dsc005351

dsc005411

dsc005441

dsc005482

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner at the Black Cockatoo, one of only three restaurants open on the mountain over summer weekends. We presented ourselves at a standard-looking hotel dining room where the antics of the coupleat the next table – a man well into his fifties witha cute little twenty-something on his arm – entertained us for the evening. The food was well-presented and perfectly edible: nothing out of this world but very enjoyable. By none thirty we had extended our evening as much as we could, and headed back to our little hideaway where Orlando very sensibly had brought a laptop of movies to watch. We’ve been caught like this before in small Australian towns on a Saturday night, back in our room at nine in the evening with nothing to do. We make sure we have our own entertainment now.

Next morning after a fresh and tasty breakfast roll in the Cattleman’s Inn, we headed to the day spa for our massages before Orlando hired a mountain bike and tried his hand at the downhill trails. I kept to a gentle stride on the village footpath, stopping every minute to appreciate the view whilst tramping along a quiet and peaceful country pathway. The sun shone and it was warm enough for a mile-high mountain. I savoured the solitude and the scenery.

Once I saw the chairlift stop I waited for Orlando to return at the bike shop, Powerade in hand. He came around the corner like a centaur, full bike helmet on and standing on his pedals. He said the terrain was a bit mad and he had mistakenly gone down the black run instead of the nursery slopes, but despite his horror stories I think he secretly enjoyed the thrill.

dsc005851

Down at the Arlberg we sat and watched the mountains turn red with a drink in hand. Built like a barn, this place is not designed for comfort or fine dining: it is more a basic skiier’s bar with long trestle tables, Channel 9 on the big screen and cheap and cheerful food. Nonetheless we settled into a couple of sofas in the corner and relaxed for a few hours before heading back to our laptop and more movies in bed.

On the way home next day we took a detour to Healesville to meet Lenford for lunch. Down the Melba Highway we skirted the heart of the two big firegrounds. Kinglake National Park stretched to the west and Toolangi National Park to the east. The edges of the road were a beautiful golden and auburn, the colours echoing a more natural autumnal beauty but born from a more chilling place. Further in, the blackness stretched as far as the eye could see.

dsc006031

Again, we saw houses surrounded by trees which had survived, whilst others had nothing but the chimney place remaining. Police still stood manning roadblocks. You still cannot go to Kinglake unless you are a local.

Out of the forest we could see the black skeletons of fire-ravaged forest up on the ridges of the hills, whilst vineyards thrived below. A strange mix of life and death everywhere we looked. Yarra Glen was still a bit of a refugee town. The relief centre I visited a few weeks ago is now renamed a community recovery centre, but the old IGA supermarket is still offering goods for free to fire-affected people.

dsc006121

Healesville on the other hand was buzzing. From the toy railway at the edge of town, you could hardly move for visitors. Many of the tourist attractions in Victoria were donating all their proceeds from the weekend to the Bushfire Appeal, and people had come in their droves. Every cafe tablewas full, every shop overflowed with people. The local economy has nothing to fear if Victorians continue to come in these numbers and spend money.

We did our bit with a leisurely lunch at Innocent Bystander – I bravely took on the cheese platter washed down with a couple of glasses of 2004 Harry’s Monster before we took the last leg of our journey home to Footscray. Another visit to Healesville is planned for winter: a solstice lunch at the lovely Bella Vedere. We shall look forward to our return visit and doing our bit for the local economy whilst enjoying good food and wine with friends.

a mid-week weekend

Two days off and it isn’t even the weekend. Marvellous. How many things do you think I can squeeze into 48 hours off that doesn’t have anything to do with work?

I wake up at the normal time – Orlando still has to get up for work. I lie in bed, savouring the space, the time. A whole day stretches before me.

An hour on the phone with Mum kicks off the social part of my day. She is all excited about Lee coming to visit, and only wants to hear that the bushfires are all fine now, and winding down. I can’t seem to find the ability to get off the sofa. Luckily, I have hours of trashy TV to watch. But hunger calls as usual and I head down to Le Chien in Seddon, a rare weekday treat. I sit in a corner away from the yummy mummies and have my usual: a chicken pide with a weak Irish Breakfast tea. The only other time I’ve been here alone is when Orlando was back in the UK a few years ago, and I had my Christmas cards to write that day. This feels strange, but good.

The rest of the afternoon is all booked up. A visit to the Indian beauty salon to get my eyebrows threaded makes me feel glamorous and well-groomed again – at last. Up in Highpoint, one lady attacks my feet with a sterile blade and some nail polish whilst her colleague french polishes my hands. I leave buffed and fabulous, with striking orange toenails and princess flip flops.

In my new hair salon, I am not sure if the proprietress speaks in a yell all the time, or if the shop is just a bit echoey. It is a nice atmosphere though: the clients all chip in with opinions and stories, and Vicki treats all of her young staff like kids. I am sat at a reclining massage chair by the basin and a moisturising treatment massaged into my scalp. They leave me there for twenty minutes, head wrapped in a towel. I sleep like a baby.

At six o’clock I arrive home, ready for anything, hair glossy, toenails shiny, ready for dinner. A Greek salad, some Irish sausages and a few glasses of Langhorne Creek wine hit the spot. A possum hides in the palm tree outside the house – am I the only person who thinks they look like Wombles?

possum in the tree

I fall asleep in the middle of a conversation with Orlando, and know nothing more until morning.

Even lazier on the second day, more trashy TV fills the morning until I drag myself out for lunch again. Why not fill up on bread – it’s my hobby. A leisurely two hours at The Strand restaurant makes my day – what lovely food.

 dsc00480

Back at home with things heating up seriously, I make several attempts at watching more TV but snooze happily for an hour instead. Orlando, Ossie and Eric put the world to rights with a glass of bubbly while I potter around my favourite food blogs.

My one work thing, a nightly ten o’clock phone call, is not required this evening. We already know we are working through the night. I am off the hook. I pour another glass of Langhorne Creek wine (a 2000 Rosemount Estate cabernet merlot petit verdot) and settle down for the evening. The cool change is coming.

black yarra valley

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.

rainey

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.

map

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.

vines1

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.

salvos

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.

healeville-vols

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?

black-11

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.

black-2

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.

one week on

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.

dsc00270-copy

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.

dsc00244

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.

copy-of-dsc00167

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.

the fireground

We packed the catering truck with five hundred meals from two city hotels, and headed north out the Hume Highway into the country. It was almost nine o’clock. Darkness fell as we left the city lights and drove into the unknown.

For a day and a half we had watched as fires tore through Victoria. Nine major fires were exacerbated by over four hundred smaller ones. Thousands of hectares were being decimated in what was turning out to our worst nightmare.

As we turned off the Hume about thirty kilometres out of the city, the darkness could not hide how normal everything looked. We were about forty kilometres from one of the centres of the fire, yet everything looked so ordinary. The lights from the golf club twinkled on a hill. Houses with parked cars outside looked safe enough.

Arriving into Whittlesea, it seemed a normal country town on a Sunday evening: little traffic, few pedestrians, sleepy and quiet. As we approached the far outskirts of the town we saw our first indication of abnormality. Flashing lights ahead heralded what we thought would be the end of our journey. Whittlesea Showground had been turned into the Country Fire Authority’s staging point, the central location from where they despatched fire crews into the bushfires beyond. Not being a shift change-over time, it was pretty quiet. Mountains of bottled water sat beside the check-in point. St. John Ambulance crews hung around their vehicle, with nobody to treat. CFA men and women wandered about doing various tasks – moving vehicles, passing messages onto to police, talking with colleagues. The huge Channel Seven satellite dish, a handful of wandering cameramen and some powerful TV lights in the middle of the oval hinted that this was something slightly out of the ordinary.

I stood chatting to the staging area coordinator and another lady for a couple of minutes. He said they were bearing up so far. Another bloke wandered by and quietly asked my companions if they had heard the news about a mutual acquaintance. They nodded sombrely. Bad news. Perhaps a neighbour or colleague who’d been confirmed as dead.

Matt, a young CFA bloke, came to talk to us, and we started unlocking the food compartments, ready to offload our meals. No, he said, we will just wait for your police escort and you can follow us the rest of the way. It appeared we had to keep going past the staging area to a couple of fire stations to deliver the meals directly to the fire crews. This was going to take longer than we thought.

Sam our police officer arrived, and we headed off. It can’t be that dangerous, we thought: the police vehicle was a regular Holden. A mile or so away we hit a road block, the first of many we were about to navigate. A small huddle of what looked like local teenagers hung around nearby. Two State Emergency Service vehicles and a handful of SES volunteers manned the checkpoint. They waved us through. We peered through the darkness: everything still looked perfectly normal. A few properties lined the road but we could see no lights. The road was clear. We couldn’t be that close to the fireground, could we?

A second roadblock, this time more heavily manned with SES and police, seemed to be the inner cordon. We chugged along in our sturdy Red Cross truck, following the police car and the CFA truck. A handful of cars fell in line with us – perhaps local people waiting for the police escort to get to close-by properties, I don’t know. They overtook us and drove away so maybe not. Minutes later a stream of flashing lights approached – a convoy of fire trucks and support vehicles heading back to the staging area. But all around us the land still looked perfectly normal.

Then: we both saw it at the same time. All around us in the dark were burning embers. Flames licked around the bases of trees right on the side of the road. Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a gum tree on our right hand side spewed glowing red embers like a catherine wheel right across the road in front of us. The red glow all around us got more prominent. Everything was still on fire. Above us, large boughs glowed red and threatened to break and fall.

The road had obviously been mechanically cleared by something – the debris on the roadside indicated that there had been lots of trees and branches on the road recently. We seemed to be up on a ridge with the city way down on our right and a sort of valley to the left. All we could see was blackness dotted with red; lone trees burned here and there, some with angry flame, some just smouldered.

The first burned-out car was quite confronting. On a long stretch of road with nothing much about, a car was burned to a shell. We wondered what would lead you to abandon your car like that in the middle of a bushfire, until we realised that they maybe hadn’t actually made it out of the car. Then another car wreck, then another. The flames and embers all around us got more and more prevalent. On small patches of grass you could see dull red embers eating away in a crooked line.

The smell of burning wood filled the air. To me, that is a comforting smell, reminding me of campfires in Powerscourt and Lough Dan with the scouts, or the big old inglenook fireplace in Giltspur Cottage where we spent many winter weekends. It was incongruous to associate that pleasant smell with the carnage around us.

The scene got more confronting. We could see destroyed houses, sheds, garages. One structure burned slowly and evenly: it looked like it was designed to burn that way. All that was left was about an even metre high of smouldering mass. A bramble patch burned angrily like a bonfire, high into the sky. How was that not making everything else burst into flame again? We had heard the talk about burning embers travelling up to ten kilometres ahead of the fire front. As we watched embers flying all around us it because easier to understand how that could happen.

In the distance we could see the distinct shape of a house still burning. Less than a hundred metres away another clear shape: another home, lights on, car parked outside, all perfectly normal. It was so clinical how the fire could raze one home to the ground and pass by the one next door without leaving a mark.

A dead horse lay on its side. How fast was the fire spreading that a horse could not outrun it? Later, our police escort Sam told us he had been evacuating people the day before, screeching down country roads doing 120 kilometres per hour, and the fire front overtook him at speed, going in the same direction.

Finally we arrived at the first stop .West Kinglake fire station is a small station, now chock-a-block with extra fire tenders and temporary residents. As we waited for them to make a parking space for us we watched fire crews shaking out their mattresses for the evening. I spoke to two firefighters standing outside having a smoke. They said they were coping ok so far, but they were happy for the food. I asked a young firefighter about the abandoned cars, and whether the people in them would have escaped. He said it was easy to tell: those with remains still in them had police tape around them.

As we packed up the truck to head off again, one of the older blokes advised me to keep a careful watch on the road. I thought he was talking about the fallen trees and power lines we had already encountered, but no. He was warning us of people, dazed and confused people who are just wandering about in the dark, not sure where they are, traumatised by the fires. He said there had been quite a few near misses that day with the fire trucks barely missing them.

Onwards we went. More fire. More trees sparkling with flying embers. More abandoned burned-out cars. Some were run into ditches or up embankments. Ahead a huge gum tree had fallen right across the road. The SES or somebody had been up and chopped away half of the tree to allow for through traffic. A car had collided head-on with the other half of the tree, and lay on the road crumpled to half its length and totally burned to a shell. I couldn’t see any police tape, but neither could I envisage how the occupants could have survived.

Another car. Police tape on that one. Then the charred remains of a high-speed head-on collision between a saloon car and a small truck carrying gas cylinders. What would have been the flat bed of the truck looked like a pile of paper on the ground. Surely nobody could have survived that.

Then the worst scene of the night: as we approached the destroyed town of Kinglake a six-car pile-up on one side of the road, and a moped on its side on the other, apparently having hit a tree. All seven vehicles had police tape on. It must have been impossible to see with the smoke, and in their panic the drivers perished trying to escape. We drove past in silence, knowing a lot of people had lost their lives in that spot only a day before.

I’d been told a number of times in the previous twenty-four hours that “Kinglake is gone” and “Marysville is gone”. It is hard to imagine a regular small country Victoria town simply not existing anymore – no houses, no schools, nothing. Well, here we were in Kinglake and I didn’t have to imagine anymore. Having driven slowly through the burning remains of the outskirts of the town, we witnessed more carnage. A ghost town loomed, eerie silence enveloping everything. More shells of houses and other buildings – the schools are all gone, the community hall disappeared. A single brick chimney was all that remained of one place. A small car park full of burned-out cars. More flickering flames burning even now – gate posts, telegraph poles, trees, grass.

The Kinglake fire station was right beside the old motel at the crossroads in the centre of the small town. Amazingly, both were pretty much untouched. The space in between was filled with fire trucks with the names of the brigades on their sides: Mount Eliza, Macedon, Werribee. Some of these guys were a long way from home. Right in the middle was a big Red Cross first aid van. Our people had been despatched up here for a few days. They didn’t know where they were sleeping or when their shift was going to end, but they were more concerned about the wellbeing of the firefighters they were treating. The injuries weren’t bad, they said. It was people’s mental state they were monitoring more than anything.

A harassed-looking CFA woman approached us. She told us this was the only food they’d seen all day. The trestle tables were already set up to serve out the food. We had no plates or cutlery for them, so they spoke to the owner of the closed-up motel next door, a firefighter himself. He went to find what he could.

The CFA station’s “Fire Danger Today” sign had the arrow pushed right around to “extreme”. We watched this gang of firefighters line up for their food. Everybody we had seen and met today, apart from the Police, were volunteers. The firefighters, the SES, the Red Cross, even some of the ambulance people. No pay for what they were doing, but they were well-trained, the front line of defence against fire. And they had turned up in their thousands all over Victoria.

We turned for home and made our way back out of the fire ground with our police escort leading the way, retracing our steps back past the destroyed houses, burned-out cars and destruction that had claimed so many lives. It would have been a different experience had we done this delivery in daylight. There would have been more people about – SES crews clearing roads, firefighters doing what they could, police starting the grisly process of victim identification. But in the quiet of the night with nobody around, the enormity of what we saw seemed even more devastating. How this community, and others like it, are going to even start trying to rebuild their lives is unimaginable.

We got home past two in the morning, exhausted. The alarm woke us before seven, with a man from Kinglake recounting his story on the radio. I knew it was Kinglake even though he didn’t mention it till the end, because he was describing exactly what we’d seen the night before, almost blow by blow. The last thing he said was that country Victoria folk were strong; he didn’t know what he was going to do now to rebuild his life but he knew he would. They are going to need all the help we can give.

extreme weather

Melbourne is battling with temperatures over 40C all this week. If the forecast turns out as predicted, it will be the hottest week the city has seen in 101 years.

It reached 43C  in the past hour, and tomorrow they expect to see 44C in and around the city.

I have drunk cups of coffee colder than that.

Personally, the air-conditioning – and the fact that I am 1,700km (1,000 miles) north in BrisVegas – means I’m missing this record-breaking heat.

Thank god. You know how awful warm red wine tastes.