Monday, February 07, 2011

Two years on: Black Saturday

Last year I tried to write something about being on year on from Black Saturday, and this was as far as I got:

"Just after the minute's silence for the victims of Black Saturday at midday, I sat outside on the verandah, looking at the trees, the mountains and a half-full moon hanging in the clear blue sky. There was silence in nature. The birds were quiet. No breeze moved the leaves on the trees. No human sounds disturbed the stillness. I just let tears slip down my face without bothering to brush them away."

I just couldn't write any more.

I'm not sure how much further I'll manage to get today, two years on from Black Saturday, even though life is a little more settled now.

I had sold my home at the end of December of 2009 and, although I'm sure it was frustrating for the people who bought it, I had to be there past the first anniversary of Black Saturday. My home was in the beautiful town of Warburton, which had the threat of the fires hanging over it for more than a month as they burned behind the mountain range on the northern side of town. We were incredibly lucky that the fires just stayed behind the mountains, menacing but not ultimately destroying the town like they had so many others.

I guess being in the house a year on from the events of Black Saturday was some sort of point I was proving, maybe mostly to myself. It had been an incredibly difficult 12 months. The fires came around the same time as we began to learn the extent of which we were being screwed over at my former work. But that was the last thing on the list of stuff to worry about at that point.

On Black Saturday itself, my friend Larie and I decided to go down to Eastland to avoid the heat. Neither of us had aircon at home, so we figured that we'd wander around in air-conditioned comfort until the heat of the day had passed and then head home. I had a bizarre feeling that morning about things and packed a bag with the most important things I owned - my dog's ashes, my toy elephant given to me as a baby, my Grandma's The Light Princess and Other Stories, my Nanna's Bible, a few other things.

After quite a few hours at Eastland, we thought we'd see how the temperatures outside were going and head back to Chirnside Park. If it was still hot, we'd go see some movies or something.

When we got outside, there was smoke in the air - a thick brown cloud of it high overhead. I think we were both quite worried about it, but didn't realise the extent of what was going on. At this point, we'd not seen anything about the fires and no-one had messaged or called either of us. By the time we got to Chirnside Park, the sky was covered with smoke and the wind was basically gale-force. The heat was insane. I can still remember how exhausted and dehydrated I felt just walking the 100 metres or so from the car to the cinema.

We watched Australia, figuring it was the longest film and would mean the most time in the aircon before heading home. When we got out, the smoke was thicker, blackening the sky. I rang my parents, who had messaged me about it while we were in the cinema. There wasn't all that much clear information at that point on the CFA site, but they advised us to not go home.

We thought we might at least try to go back, get some things and head out again. But when we got to the hill that you drive down to get back into Lilydale, enormous clouds of smoke were covering the valley and we could see the vivid orange glow of flames kilometres away.

So we didn't go back. And we didn't get back for a few days, spending most of our time at a hotel in Croydon that generously and kindly slashed their prices for people who had evacuated the area to avoid the fires. We watched the news, numb with horror as the number of the dead and injured increased. I can't even begin to imagine the terror of things in the areas impacted by the bushfires. It breaks my heart every time I think about the people who died. The neighbours of my neighbour's parents were killed in Kinglake. One of my friends lost two of his friends in St Andrews. The suddenness of it and how inescapable it was is terrifying to think about.

When we did finally return to Warburton, it was for work and to pack up our most important possessions and take them out of the Yarra Valley. Of the entire month when the fires really posed a threat to Warburton, I think we only stayed in the town for six nights. It was surreal seeing my own beloved town on the cover of newspapers, being talked about for how likely it would be that it'd be the next to be obliterated by the fires.

Visiting and interviewing a family who lost their house and everything in it, as well as discovering their neighbours had burned to death in the fires, was perhaps personally one of the hardest part of the Black Saturday period of life. I then had to write an article about it, all while my own house was still under threat. From The Ashes was the article that resulted from this, and it won a silver award for the Best Article, Applying Faith To Life from the Australasian Religious Press Association in 2010.

I know I'm incredibly lucky to have survived everything that went on with Black Saturday. But it's still difficult. I still have the advice SMS warning of extreme fire danger conditions on my phone from March 3, 2009. When I hear sirens in Summer, I get anxious. I don't know how much worse it would be for people whose towns and homes were destroyed by the fires. Or for those who lost loved ones. It must be unbearable.

When I was in Warburton the week before last and saw white smoke drifting lightly across the valley from someone burning off something, I remembered Black Saturday. I remembered how on the trip up to Warburton, there were some teens talking about it - the fear, the horror, how they almost lost a friend in it. I remembered how the mountains looked 10,000 metres tall, looming, ominous. And yet that day the other week? It was the most beautiful Warburton day. Butterflies fluttered around, the sparrows bobbed about, the sky was the most amazing blue, the river chattered away to itself.

Time moves on, but we don't forget what happened on February 7, 2009.


Anonymous said...

Powerful words. Very emotional.

Della said...

Thanks, Anon.

Kel said...

sometimes it takes two years to put words to something so traumatic, other times a lifetime could never be enough to cobble together one sensible sentence

glad you were able to sort and sift some of it,

and that you had the gift of a sunny day of birds, butterflies and bubbling brooks to offer a more pleasant memory in that place

Della said...

This is true. It's one of those really difficult things to get past, and I was really lucky. I hate to think what it would be like for people who really were closely impacted by the fires :-/

But yes, it was beautiful there the other week. But Warburton is almost always gorgeous! I regret not taking more photos there.