The ash from a hundred thousand gums stains the sunset sky shades of jaundiced tobacco.
A month on, and Victoria has still not fully taken stock of the impact of the bushfires that swept across the state in early February. At least 210 people died, 2,000 homes were lost, and several towns were quite literally seared off the map.
In my line of work I deal with emergencies on a daily basis. The NGO I work for focusses on disasters and crises in developing nations, namely because these countries often do not have the capacity to handle the impact of these situations themselves. When friends ask me why we don’t support victims of disasters in the USA, or Australia, or the UK, I point out that these countries all have finances, stable governments and emergency services that are well equipped and capable of handling the situation. Homes are insured and you can count on national law enforcement agencies and health care services to protect people.
We won’t talk about Hurricane Katrina here.
It’s different when it hits close to home, of course. Moving around Melbourne on February 7th, I remember just how frightening the wind was, scorching across the city at well over forty-five degrees and leaving street-signs and tree-branches heaving backwards and forwards. Watching a fine pall of smoke start to move in from the north as the afternoon wore on and knowing that peoples’ homes were at risk. Driving back home, and being diverted from my usual route after a fire closed the road only to see, not ten minutes later, another blaze at the side of my alternate route, belching black smoke across the tarmac while emergency services scrambled to contain it. Listening to the sad news come in that Kinglake and Marysville had been destroyed, and running through the memories I had of both places, knowing that those landscapes wouldn’t ever be the same.
I’ve been lucky- none of my own friends have died or lost their homes in the fires. In such a selfish way we count the cost of events like these. Friends of mine did spend more than two weeks on alert, patrolling their homes day in and day out as the fire-fronts waxed and waned with the whims of wind and weather. A few have lost people they care about, or had homes of family members destroyed. One mate, who’s a volunteer for the Country Fire Association, even managed a trip to the hospital after his fire-truck was trapped in the path of a fast-burning fire-front; the fact that he and his companions stayed calm and followed their training saved their lives and meant that their burns were not life-threatening.
In situations like these it’s natural to want to help, and ordinarily it’s frustrating to have to sit back and watch the headlines unfold without being able to directly contribute. Especially as, in my job, I and the team I work with are used to being able to contribute to situations such as these when they happen overseas. A couple of days after the fire, however, my manager approached the Country Fire Association (CFA) and asked if they wanted any support from us, given that we have a cadre of emergency response professionals- and most of us itching to do something. The CFA mulled this over, then said yes.
It’s been a nice change, working with an Australian emergency service, and being able to contribute to something right on my back doorstep. I’ve been one of a small group from our organization who have been providing a little extra support to the CFA during the last few weeks. It’s been interesting, and they’ve been good people to work with. The reality of what I do means I can’t really say in good faith that I hope to work with them again in the future, because if I have to work with them again in the future it probably means there’s been another disaster somewhere, and I don’t want that. But you get the gist of what I’m saying.
The drive to give and support following a disaster is a powerful one. It’s also an interesting one. Having worked in the field of emergencies and disasters for nearly six years (man, that’s a scary thought; has it really been that long?), I found myself watching the bushfire emergency unfold and recalling the South Asia Tsunami of 2004. The impact of the Victorian fires is by no means as sweeping as that of the tsunami (about one thousandth the toll, to be precise), although it’s worth noting that for each individual who has lost a home or a loved one, it makes little difference whether five other people were affected, or five million; the grief they experience doesn’t change much.
There were a few things that reminded me of the tsunami. First was the way in which the information trickled out. I remember watching the news on the evening of February 7 waiting to hear of any information on the fires after the record heat-wave and brutal winds, and by about nine pm the first reports of a few deaths started to reach the media- perhaps a dozen across the state, which was sad, but to be honest I felt like Victoria had dodged a bullet compared to what we’d been warned to be ready for. Then the next morning, there were reports that Marysville had been destroyed, but still few reports of deaths. Then as the day wore on, and on into Monday and Tuesday, the toll just grew and grew, and you could sense the shock in people whenever it came up (which was all the time)- a sense of disbelief mingled with horror.
The tsunami was the same, of course. I remember on Boxing Day evening, when the tsunami was just a few hours old, and reports were coming in of a few thousand people killed in the Indian Ocean, I can remember glancing at the news reports and thinking, that’s not good, and wondering whether I’d need to be going in to the office the next day. It wasn’t for another couple of days that the full scale trickled out into the public domain, and then as the figures continued to rise, there was a numb shock that settled over everyone, until the numbers just became blurry.
Perhaps one of the things that made both events really stand out was how personally people in Australia responded to them. The Victorian bushfires were, of course, peoples’ back yards. Literally, in many cases. Most Melbournians have personal memories of many of the places affected, and many had friends or family in affected areas, so that made the event terribly personal. The tsunami was a step removed in one sense, in that it was a long way away, and not peoples’ homes being directly affected. But the fact that so many Australians knew the Thai beaches that were destroyed, and that a number of Australians had died in the disaster, made it feel much more personal than, for example, the crisis in Darfur, which has had a far more devastating impact on even more people over a longer time period, but which has taken place in a world that most Australians aren’t familiar with and therefore doesn’t resonate in the same way. I don’t say this as a criticism particularly, merely an observation on the way in which people behave, and understandably-so.
The giving is another aspect which reminds me of the 2004 Tsunami. Australia has just hosted a pair of benefit concerts for the victims of the bushfires, and also of the floods in Queensland. I don’t know how much money has been raised so far, but I do know it’s an enourmous amount- I would guess the appeal itself has probably raised well in excess of AUD 100 million (recognizing that at the current exchange rates, this is about enough to buy a small Detroit-built car in the United States right now; or, in the UK, two pints of milk). The sheer generosity of Australians during a crisis like this is really quite overwhelming. In fact, terribly overwhelming. Without wishing to be critical of anyone in any way, when you consider that many homes were insured, that the government has contingencies in place to fund and support the rescue and relief effort, and that most of the loss and suffering that people will experience due to the fires is not related to finances, there is almost too much money being raised. People like to give. It makes them feel better. This isn’t a bad thing, and I’m not wanting to sound cynical or to deny the place of altruism in the whole process. I know that most of those who have given have given out of caring, and I admire that. It makes me step back and take note, that’s all. I remember the feeling that we as a responding agency had as we watched money roll in for the Tsunami, and just as we were stunned by the ever-increasing numbers of casualties being reported from the field, so too we were overwhelmed by the vast amount of money pouring in from a grieving Australian public. When all was said and done, I believe that Australians gave more per capita to the tsunami response than any other country on earth. While as an outsider I might find fault with some aspects of this nation, their generosity in times of hardship could not possibly be one of them.
If there’s any one message I’d want to see passed back to the Australian people who have given so much these past few weeks, it would be to keep those who have lost in the bushfires in their thoughts and prayers and memories. It’s easy to remember the survivors in the weeks following an event like this, when the media is saturated and everybody is coming to terms with events in their own way. Six months down the line, however, peoples’ thoughts will have moved on, while those who lost homes will be living through their first winter in small trailer parks or temporary dormitories, waiting for their houses to get rebuilt. Those who have lost loved ones will be watching birthdays and anniversaries roll past, agonizing reminders. Some will be alone. Many will feel forgotten. The adrenaline and powerful sense of urgency which carried individuals and families through the initial crisis will have faded. The huge public outpouring of support, beautiful and well-intentioned as it is, simply won’t be sustainable, and in its wake life will feel very hollow. Marriages will falter. Some will face depression, some suicide. It’s at this time that the folks who have been touched by this disaster are really going to need the help of their friends, their neighbours, and of the Australian people more broadly. Please remember them when that time comes.
All photos taken four days after the deadly fires of Saturday 7th February 2009, where ash suspended in the sky painted rich and sinister sunsets from the Frankston waterfront. Ash stayed in the sky for the better part of 3 weeks while the fires continued to burn across the state, only really coming under control a full month after the day the media now refers to as Black Saturday.