This coming weekend is 6 years ago to the date. Brad and I were having our morning coffee looking out over the valley from our new home We had been here just 3 weeks. Brad points off to the distance and asks, “is that smoke?”
It was. Not long after, the sirens started, they were coming from so many directions. Then, the helicopters. It was already pretty warm and it was going to be a hot windy day, we’d lived in the hills for a couple of years so we knew this could go bad and it could happen fast.
I didn’t wait, I packed everything on my emergency list, a bag for Brad. And no clothes for myself.
Then, as 5 aircraft started water bombing over our property we left – unsure if there would be anything to return to when we came home.
We weren’t able to come home for a week. But at least we had a home to come back to. Many people on our street didn’t. 57 homes were lost and many more damaged, in the coming weeks, months and years there was the blame game happening. Who’s fault is it?
With the fires raging throughout Australia I wanted to share a little about our experience. I’ve been pretty quiet about this subject online because it still hurts 6 years later and the memories from that time become raw pretty easy. If I hear sirens, my heart races and I obsessively check my phone. Sometimes I still get teary about it.
But it’s time to talk about what’s happening in Australia right now and what I think would have helped us.
This image was taken just after our property Image Credit: Department of Fire and Emergency Services
Firstly, people are amazing, honestly, the love and sense of community that everyone has right now is extraordinary. We all feel so helpless and really want to help any way we can. We all want to ‘do’ something – donate in any way possible.
My answer is: give money. Unless an organisation is asking for something in particular, money is what is needed. It allows people to have choice, this is something that has been taken away and I know from experience, you crave being able to make decisions, (like what style of underwear you wear because you didn’t pack anything for yourself).
Also for the ‘lucky’ ones that get to come back to homes still standing, there is probably damage that needs fixing. We fought for 18 months to be paid our full insurance claim but with the damage that the fire caused on our property we still had to pay for the power to be reconnected, phone lines to be fixed, almost 2kms worth of fencing to be reinstalled. This adds up very quickly and when your insurance company (yes, I’m looking at your Elders Insurance) are being heartless arseholes. So you pay upfront if you have the savings then you cross your fingers you’ll get it back.
Money helps get your life back on track.
We were told over and over we were one of the ‘lucky’ ones. And we were. We understand that, but please don’t tell people they are lucky, it makes you feel like you should be OK, even when you are not. It closes you down because you shouldn’t be so sad, you don’t have the same level of stress and anxiety as others.
We had a home that was still standing so we were ‘lucky’ but there is so much guilt you feel being ‘lucky’.
Every time someone told us we were lucky I wanted to vomit. Because, why were we lucky and our neighbours weren’t? We had just moved in, we hadn’t done much to prepare for the fires why did we get to keep our home and why did the people down the road lose it all.
For the people living in these fire-ravaged communities, they aren’t lucky, they might still have a home but they aren’t lucky, they have been through hell and now they need to find a way to rebuild a life, it’s not the same life that they had but they still need to rebuild something.
And I think it’s safe to say everyone not in the direct line of fire at the moment feels a bit of survivor’s guilt. We aren’t sure about how to navigate our way through doing business at this time, we’re second-guessing all our moves. It’s going to be completely ‘normal’ for a while for everyone to feel guilty.
People love to stickybeak. If you don’t need to be in the area, stay away.
I am still dumbfounded at how stupid people are, while I had as much of my life as I could grab before leaving my home and while Brad left with a race car on the back of his car, not even tied down because we just had to get out, others thought it was the perfect time to come watch.
Let me say that again.
People came to watch our community burn.
As I evacuated my street I couldn’t get out, the fire engine couldn’t get in, because there were so many people coming to see what was happening.
Precious minutes were lost because people wanted a look. At someone else’s devastation.
Even days after we were allowed home there were loads of people driving past to get a better look. There were no trees left to hide behind anymore so we could spot everyone rolling up and down the street checking out the catastrophe. After the fire is under control, people will be trying to rebuild their lives with what is left in their community, they don’t need to be on show while it’s happening.
Be ready to listen but also shut up
This experience is personal, yes there are news cameras everywhere and people having opinions all over social media but for the people in the hot zones it’s personal, it’s their lives and their communities.
Some people will want to share their experience and some won’t. Be OK with being there if asked but also be respectful that maybe they aren’t ready to share with you their feelings.
I didn’t want to talk about the fire to anyone, I would end up in tears each time and I just wanted something normal.
Ask if they are OK, let them know you are here if they need but be prepared people might just not want to talk about it all the time.
Normality is everything
Normal doesn’t come back because the fire is out. When we looked down the valley, there was almost nothing left except charred trees and homes. Normality can happen for just a moment by stepping away and have a coffee with a friend or maybe going back to business.
There is a scar that will always be there. About a year of the fires I spoke to a neighbour who told me about her bird, every time it hears a siren it starts squawking. She explained that as she left the fire was trailing behind her car that had a bird, cat, dog and her daughter were all in her car trying to escape as the flames licked the side of the car, her car was written off so you can only imagine how close it came and the fear they all felt.
But that being said, life moves on.
I remember driving around and seeing life continuing as normal for everyone at shopping centres knowing that only 20 mins away some people had lost everything they owned, it’s a little strange being on that side but the reality is that the best thing I did was open my laptop and work.
Life goes on around you and having to get back to normal was a relief, it gave hope that everything was going to be OK soon.
I think if I was to offer you something, it’s that we need to keep moving, keep doing business, keep laughing and loving each other. It’s alright to be thankful that it’s not you, hug your loved ones a little closer. Give the communities the space to heal but remember them as well, in the coming weeks, months, and years we need to support them by donating if you can, visiting when appropriate to bump up tourist dollars, buying locally, and listening when needed.