Reflections on the Victorian bushfires

I have been extraordinarily saddened by the bushfires that have so far killed 131 181 people in Victoria. Given that I spend much of my days at work rattling off statistics about deaths, injuries and poverty, the strength of what I have felt has really caught me by surprise.

I was in the Yarra Valley on Saturday and found myself close to the fires. I wanted to recount that experience briefly and then offer some thoughts about how people respond to such dreadful tragedies. The photos for this post are available on flickr.

On Saturday I went to Stones on the Yarra for a wedding. It was the hottest day Victoria has ever experienced – 47 degrees.

The weather was as hot and foul as you could imagine. After the ceremony at 4pm, the guests came out to see thick smoke beyond the vines at the bottom of the property (all the photos are above). By the time we had finished our pre-dinner drinks it had run about a kilometre parallel to the venue and we could see the flames, and by entrees the police had arrived and told us to leave. The CFA arrived shortly after and told the owner we couldn’t leave because all the roads were closed.

The fire curved around the property like a “J”. Through all the smoke a couple of really thick black plumes went up – someone said they were diesel tanks. In any case, the winery next door completely burnt down.

While all of this was going on, some of the guests were outside laying out hoses and filling buckets of water. The pump wouldn’t start, and when it did the hose was uncoupled and water sprayed everywhere.

The fire was at a point where it could complete a U-turn and come back on us. It was close enough so that we could see the flames and hear it crackling. Between courses guests wandered outside to check on the progress of the fire.

At about 7pm the wind died right off, and people relaxed almost straight away. It was only when it got dark that people started to realise the scale of the fires. In every direction the horizon glowed masses of orange. I counted 15 separate fires of varying intensity.

The whole affair was surreal. There were 120 people bravely trying to keep their attention on the wedding, ambitiously trying – and failing – to talk about something other than the fires around us. But there weren’t many drunk people, and there wasn’t much dancing. Men in suits tinkered with engines and shifted water around the property while the jazz band played on inside. Emergency vehicles drove by while the formal photos were being taken, and the speeches were delivered with thick smoke billowing across the vines in the background.

At the time I thought ‘this will make a great blog post’. Yesterday I reconsidered – I didn’t want to sound flippant describing a wedding when other people were facing absolute horror, and I was suitably chastened given my sarcastic efforts in my previous post. But we were all oblivious to the scale of what was unfolding. Since then I’ve watched the news non-stop and seen how quickly people were caught out. I wonder if we weren’t potentially in a lot more trouble than we all realised.

I’ve thought about what it is that has made people respond so strongly to these fires. Certainly the scale has something to do with it, but I don’t think we would have seen the same level of public response if the disaster had been a ferry sinking, for example. But there are other reasons that are present, but haven’t really been spoken about plainly. Fire has a particular horror that makes everyone fearful. It is erratic, fast and utterly unforgiving. It is not a good death.

People have responded to the bushfires because of the heartbreaking decisions they force: should I stay or should I go? Should I send my children away, or should I stay with them? And most of all, it is the arbitrary nature of bushfires that provide the most heartbreak of all: a dash to safety brought undone by a fickle gust of wind, the defence of a house scuttled by a failing generator.

Imagining being thrust into such dreadful decisions, or being subjected to a fiery whim is not hard to do. I instantly understood the wrenching sadness that survivors must be feeling, knowing that those who died probably faced agonising choices in their last few hours.

I spend a lot of time saying that helping people shouldn’t stop at state or national boundaries. This is no exception. The Red Cross is running an appeal. If you can, you should donate. Go to redcross.org.au

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