While I live in Sydney, many Australians who live in the south-eastern state of Victoria have had their lives changed forever. Over the last week in temperatures in excess of 45°C (110°F) , the horrific tragedy of bushfire has swept across parched rural and forested lands leaving a trail of destruction and death. Around 180 people have lost their lives (with the final count likely to approach 300), around 1800 houses have been lost and over half a million hectares burned out (equivalent to the state of Connecticut or 1/8 of Switzerland). Both stock and wildlife in large numbers have perished. Everyone from these towns and village will have lost family, friends, neighbours or property in what is now considered to be Australia’s worst peacetime event.
Indeed, entire towns and villages have been reduced to ash. As if frozen in time, others lie in a tangled wreck of wrought iron, charred brick chimneys and the faint shadowy structures of houses and buildings. Children’s toys lay blackened where they were last left. Tangled and burnt clothing flutter in the wind pegged to clotheslines.
The stories of heroism fill the newspapers. Thousands have risked their own lives to save others. Communities have come together in support. People all over Australia and around the world have given blankets, food and money to help rebuild these people’s lives. The fire fighters, many of them volunteers and some having experienced deep losses themselves, have fought heroically beyond the point of exhaustion undoubtedly reducing the fires from causing far greater damage. Governments, so often criticised in such tragic events, have been quick to assist and have been impressive in their responsiveness and efforts in aiding those most in need.
While most of the fires have started by lightning strikes, it is beyond comprehension that some of these fires are believed to have been intentionally lit and still others by the carelessness of discarded cigarette butts. Entire towns have been declared as crime scenes.
Unable to sleep, I lay in bed listening for hours at the 24 hour radio coverage of our national broadcaster, the ABC. In this time of internet, instant messaging and mobile phones, the radio was the primary source of information and the most up-to-date reports on where the fires were striking.
Balls of flames shot overhead like comets in the hot dry northerly winds lobbing randomly and igniting the tinder-dry ground. It is impossible to imagine the horror that people must have experienced guarding their property as towering flames fanned by gusting winds lapped at neighbour’s houses and property fences. Soot fell like torrential rain and the smoke cut visibility down to a point where driving was impossible.
Everyone will remember stories from the fire. Some are distressing, others poignant and even others seem minor in detail. A parent who packed their children and belongings in the car, returned inside to get their pet dog and returned to find their vehicle in flames. Another who ran to connect a second hose outside never to return. The sheer terror of people stranded in cars blocked by fallen trees unable to escape their burning township. A singed family parrot with only a single yellow feather remaining sits relaxed on a playing field having been rescued, seemingly unaware of its strange appearance.
Maybe photos such as those of the ABC and international coverage says more.
Bushfires are a harsh reality of Australian life with a number of plant species relying on fire to regenerate. Much as these hardened Victorians will slowly rebuild their lives, and the houses, schools, sports fields, shops and community halls of these towns and villages will be reconstructed, the first signs of new growth will appear in these ashen bushlands within a few days. The shell-shocked wildlife will return to their lands able to feed on the tasty new shoots of grass and leaves.
And while it will take years to rebuild the towns, the memories of these bushfires will be talked about, recalled and reflected upon for decades and centuries to come.
Photo Sources: 1, 2