It's hard to know where to begin writing anything, it's been such an overwhelming week. So I'm just going to start at the beginning and see where I end up. On Black Saturday as it's now known, I was at one of my regular craft weekends. This time down the beach. In the morning the weather started out pleasantly enough and everyone hoped the forecast was wrong, but once the clouds burned off, it got hot. Seriously hot. At Angelsea it was only about 43 (109C), but you could see the nasty winds outside as we sat inside sweating and sewing. Fire weather. As we were to the west of the city, we knew the cool change would come early and that we could go to the beach. Still, I was a little nervous. The house was in a heavily treed area that had burned on Ash Wednesday in 1983 and before I left home, I had gave G the exact address just in case. As the heat rose and wind became wild and nasty, I made my own personal fire plan,the beach with a woollen blanket or if I couldn't find one, a rug from the floor. But in a way I was more worried about G and Grace at home in the city where the temperature reached a nasty 47C (116F), unheard of for Melbourne. He sounded tired and melted when I rung and I wondered whether it had been fair to leave him and Grace. My biggest fear should I be caught in any catastrophe is being separated from my family and it felt like one of the those days when any number of things could have gone wrong. We of course, living in the inner suburbs were safe and far from harm's way.
famous view of the Melbourne from Kinglake, now burnt - the Herald Sun
The first inkling of the horrible disaster surrounding our city was when one of the women on the craft weekend got a text kinglake gone. Anxious calls were made and people's loved ones were safe and we kept on crafting. Later that night before going to bed, Suzie heard more of the disaster unfolding on the neighbour's radio and we crept out into the night to hear. Di got the ABC going in the lounge and we sat and listened for a while. It was bad, fires in Gippsland from the Princes highway in the east to the Hume highway heading North. Murrindindi, Toolangi, Kinglake, Marysville. Fire within 2 km of central Bendigo, a major regional town. Fire in Narre Waren, which is an outer suburb of Melbourne. Beechworth, Resedale, Horsham. The state was aflame. In the morning it was blissfully cool, there was some rain even and we kept crafting. Not one of us knew the true extent of fast moving inferno devasting towns and the beauty of craft weekend kind of wrapped us in a cocoon of good things, craft, food and conversation. On the drive back, the sky was greyer and thicker than usual and I felt relieved to arrive home. G told me of what he had heard on the radio and how bad it was. Later after Grace was in bed, I sat and watched the news. Then it hit me and I wept. For the people who died, over 180 now with more to come, stories of lucky escapes and pain, for the sheer awfulness and terror what people experienced. For the people not knowing what had happened to their family and friends, for the people caught trying to escape (read this at H&B). For the people that got away and lost everything. For the 7000 people homeless or displaced. For communities ravaged. For the horrible loss of it all.
Work last week had a grim edge. I was anxious that my uncle aunt and cousins and that friends who live in the hills were OK. They are. Other colleagues had similar sorts of worries. There were people moving around, bustling in and out. A sense of urgency alongside the mundane busyness of what we do. I work for C'link and we've been having quick daily meetings to be updated on the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment as policy and procedure evolve. Often there were more than a few moist eyes in the room. Quite a few of us have said we would work at the relief centres if required. It's work I have the skills to do and I'm ready to go, with G's blessing and support, but at the same time the thought terrifies me. It would be good to do something concrete. Then I wonder would I be up to the task? Chances are though, my job will be to carry on as normal or to backfill for someone else. And that is OK too. C'link has come in for serious criticism, which made me feel so sad and ashamed because I know that my colleagues on the ground would have been doing their best with the instructions they were given, but I also know that there is always a way around proof of identity issues in extreme circumstances. Thankfully this has been addressed and now we all have extremely clear instructions to priortise helping bushfire survivors in any way possible. There has also been massive behind the scenes work to try and deliver payments to people already receiving a benefit without them needing to lodge forms. I'm sure it won't be perfect but the bureaucrats will be trying. The list of postcodes affected illustrates yet again the enormity of it all. (How right I was, see C'link stuff up again here....)
View of the fire on Saturday night from Doncaster - The Age
Now I just wish I could do more. I wanted to give blood, which as my mum said would make you feel as though had given something of yourself, but after a careful reading of the FAQ, I'm not eligible. We've donated cash to the Red Cross, which seems like the most sensible and practical thing to do.They certainly don't need any more material aid at the moment. Sorting through it all takes time and cash means that what is actually needed can be bought. There's also a really comprehensive list of ways to help, crafty and otherwise here at Handmade Help. I'm working out what I can do, because helping, even if it feels a bit lame, seems like the only way forward.
So all week I've been a bit teary. So have many people around me. Indeed, you could hear the emotion in the voice of deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she made this speech (transcribed in a heart wrenching post by Kim). There were leaky eyes in the parliament and the Prime Minister on telly was holding back tears. G says that people not directly affected are taking on the emotion and owning it. But how can you not? This is the biggest peacetime disaster this country has ever known and part of it has been taking place within an easy hour's drive. Everyone knows someone affected or who knows someone. And what Australian gets to middle age without being touched somehow by fire? The stories pass through families, between friends, in casual conversations. Every time there is a big fire, I have this clear memory of a moment after school when I stood at the gate to my primary school watching the Dandenongs burn. Knowing that my father fighting the fire there (Mum think it was 1969 and he was helping his best friend's family in Montrose). I remember walking out of Coles in February 1983 and the sky had turned black. There have been many more fires since then and although I have never actually been in any of them or lost someone in a fire, watching them unfold always touches something primal and makes me cry. And these ones, the 2009 fires, are by far the worst yet. And they are still burning. Last night and tonight I saw orange firefighting helicopters overhead as they returned to the airport. They are menacing and comforting at the same time. Today the sky was grey, the rising and setting sun was red and every now and then the air smelled of smoke. Rain would be good.