claire, vic, discusses helplessness

31 Aug 2018

Early February 2009 the news of bushfires was startling real. We could smell it, taste it, the mountains surrounding the LaTrobe Valley crawled with thick black clouds of smoke, ash fell from the sky, the moon reflected frightening shades of orange and red, and the days passed slowly, long summer hours that closed in around us.

Radios everywhere blurted out round the clock updates and we all listened carefully to the names of tiny towns and held our breath at the news of another victim.

We were deep into summer and the climate was relentlessly attacking with force from every side, burning down upon the yellowed drought ridden ground. It was stifling, the heat choked each and every one of us; it was inescapable.

Personally, I was safe; I lived two kilometres from the heart of Traralgon. There was no chance my family and I would be told to evacuate, we didn’t and don’t have a survival plan; there was zero to none risk. However, it was terrifying. Traralgon is at the centre of surrounding rural towns and everyone has friends out on the land. Ten minutes down the road and there’s acres of agricultural land all around.

For me, the memory of black Saturday is red. The sky glowed as if fire was raining down. The smoke that had been so black and looming in the distance now rose red and orange over our heads and embers showered down over our driveways and gardens.

It was apocalyptic, it felt as though nature was angered and growled from below taking back what was her own with force and destruction.

All we could do was look to the sunset and wait for information from our friends.

The reality of the situation came crashing down when I returned to school that week. In a school of uniforms and strict dress code a yellow ribbon would stand out but all day my eyes would be drawn to a kid in brand new, clean cut clothes; shoes not yet scuffed and broken in, shirt collars stiff and straight off the shelf, jeans pressed, too long and without any holes – just one of the people who had lost everything.

It was a tough couple of weeks, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to give. We all wanted to do as much as we could but no one wanted to be treated like a charity case. We tried to put ourselves in their shoes; I’d go home and take a look around at all the built up junk I had lying around, pointless little nic-nacs with some story behind them, c.ds, clothes, books, the things I never thought about, even underwear, I couldn’t imagine it all just disappearing. Then the home itself, I had never moved, my home had always been my home, it was a sanctuary, so safe, so secure filled with memories and love and family just being there made me happy and to think of it all charred and ruined was impossible. It’s impossible to tell how you would feel in that situation. It’s easy to shrug off with ‘what do things really matter, as long as my family survived’ but it isn’t as simple as that.

In the following weeks the charity and generosity of the community was amazing, so much was given. But, then, what else could we do? There was nothing we could say to console. I felt the unavoidable feeling of helplessness and I’m sure many others experienced this too. There is no way to understand how people who had been directly affected could be feeling. It’s hard to even put into words how it was being an onlooker. It was a difficult time and that may sound like an obvious thing to say but that’s all I feel I can say about it; it was really hard and I have no idea how hard it was for others who suffered directly at the hands of the numerous Victorian fires.

Odd things would cause us to remember. Asking a friend if they still had that C.D you leant them only to remember that it had been burnt along with all of their things, you didn’t know whether to apologise or to laugh.

One day I met a girl who had lost property in the fires and asked if she got everything she wanted out in time. She told me they got the sheep to safety but couldn’t go back for much else. They never got to save their pet rabbit. It was brutal and heartbreaking and all I could do was say I was sorry for her rabbit and see her shrug and smile that they had gotten the sheep out in time.

In the months that followed arrests were made, people were beginning to give and take blame. It made us angry to think that a person could have taken so much from the people we loved but what was our anger compared to theirs?

I was just another onlooker, one of thousands from around the country. I saw the affect that the 2009 fires had but I will never be able to understand and for someone like me that’s the worst thing.