Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Australia's darkest hour- Black Saturday bushfire tragedy
I have hesitated to write about this because I don't in anyway want to sensationalise this horrible tragedy. Victoria and indeed Australia is in the midst of its worst ever tragedy and national disaster. I have lived in Russia and Canada and at times felt that I was becoming something other than just Australian, but at the moment I feel the pain of being an Australian in a very deep way.
We have had drought for some years now. The land is very parched and dry. Just recently we had the worst heat wave in 100 years. Then to top it off on Saturday we had the highest temperature record for a capital city in Australia at 46.4 C. Where we are living it almost certainly was 48 degrees in the shade. There were high northerly winds of around 80 km/h, basically coming from the desert regions of Australia. With these kinds of conditions it almost inevitable that there will be fires somewhere.
I have grown up with a psyche of bushfires in my mind. I was in grade 3 when the last tragedy struck, the "Ash Wednesday" fires of 1983. But as a city boy, I never really connected. I felt safe. The fires were never going to reach us, deep in suburbia. This was always my subconscious thought through the years. I felt sorry for people who faced bushfires. But in some way they accepted the risk, as part of the location of where they lived.
On Saturday, it was just too hot for us to stay at home. It was too hot to be outside so we did not go to the swimming pool. We drove to the Greensborough library, and funnily enough did some study in the air conditioning. The AC was struggling to keep up, but it was ok. At 5pm we went for pizza at La Porchetta. It was still burning hot. The winds were burning Abigail as we walked from the car to the restaurant, and she really didn't like that. We sat for an hour and a half, relieved in air conditioning again, enjoying a nice meal with gelato. Some 20 kilometres away, people were facing hell.
At 6:30pm we left the restaurant, the air had cooled to about 30 degrees, and there were some drops of rain in the air. Melody looked in the sky and said "is that dust or smoke?" I replied, "oh, I hope it's not bushfires."
We drove back to our home in Kangaroo Ground. At 30 degrees, I was moaning about the "fake cool change." But some 20 minutes drive north of us, people were burning, literally.
It wasn't until I sat down on Facebook, that I noticed someone had written in their status, "I can't believe that 14 have died today in the bushfires. "Oh my goodness" I realised, "something bad has happened".
I turned on the radio that evening as I often do, and it was wall to wall bushfire coverage. Warnings were being given about imminent urgent threats. People had to decide whether to stay and defend their properties, or to leave and flee. By this point the towns of King Lake and Marysville were completely ablaze. People knew that there could be bushfires, but it actually happened so suddenly, that some had no chance of escaping. In the high winds, burning embers covered 30 kilometres in 6 minutes. This was akin to an earthquake. The people caught in the epicentre of the fire were completely stuck.
I stayed awake half the night listening to the radio, and thinking that it wasn't that far from where we lived. I began to connect with people's stories, in a way that I never had when I lived in the city. "This could have been my family" I began to realise. I was terribly confused and starting to feel people's pain.
In the morning before leaving for church, I heard that there was an alert message for Hurstbridge. This meant that they could possibly face fires within a few hours. On Sunday morning the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees and the winds had died down. But the major damage had already been done, and there were many fires still burning. We packed a bag with our computers and passports and a box of photos not yet scanned. (Our lives are so minimal that it was so easy to decide what to take.) We would not return that day until we knew it was safe.
At church, yes we prayed for victims of the fires. But I had this sense that the reality had not really hit. Throughout the day the death toll started to climb. 26, 45, 66, even up to 100. What kind of tragedy had just struck? There was a ring of fires circling Melbourne and many other dangerous fires throughout the state. In the afternoon, we were at my parents, and I was making calls to the CFA and looking at their website trying to understand the situation.
We did return later that evening when it became clear that Kangaroo Ground was safe. There were still and indeed are fires to the north of us. Some of them are becoming contained, and the wind is blowing from the south.
The last couple of days I have been quite shaken. I feel people's pain. I feel like I can hear the cries coming down the road from the north. There are so many people who have lost loved ones. I have felt a deeper love for my own wife and daughter than I have known before as I realise how precious they are and I how blessed I am to have them alive with me. I have found it quite difficult to concentrate on my studies.
The national response has been swift and appropriate. Both the Premier John Brumby and the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have poured out emotion to people and on tv. They have been fine leaders and I can not fault them at all in how they have handled this tragedy. Kevin Rudd has been hugging people and having them cry on his shoulder. The Aussie "sentimental bloke" (a famous Aussie poem) is alive and well.
The Country Fire Authority made up of volunteers has worked ceaselessly and tirelessly to combat the fires. They are heroes of immense proportion. There have been many personal heroic stories, such as an 18 year old taking a bulldozer through the bush to rescue his trapped family.
Australians band well together in tough times, and this is surely a cultural strength. But it is also a weakness. The effort to help those suffering has been unanimous. People have given a lot of material goods and money. But there is also a temptation to cope with the suffering by getting to work. I am afraid that we will not mourn properly as a nation. I have contacted a key person in the Anglican church to get a message through to the Archbishop, that perhaps we could have a day of mourning for the sufferers. We need to pause and feel their pain. It would be an equal tragedy, if we just got on with our lives and forgot their loss. Up to 300 people are thought to have perished now. The official toll is close to 200.
My hope is that all international people I know would be able to identify with Australia's pain. Please pray for our nation. Please pray for people who have lost loved ones. Please pray that people would find God in their loss.
We are ok, we continue to keep an eye on things. Our biggest concern is for the ones who are victims.
This is truly Australia's darkest hour.