In 2009, my home town of Kinglake was hit by the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2, 000 homes. I wasn’t living in Kinglake at the time, I’d moved to the city about five years prior, but I had family there. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle didn’t lose their houses. My brother did.
Kinglake is (or was back then) a small town, where everyone sort of knows everyone, so I also knew a lot of people who were impacted. In the weeks following the fire, you couldn’t go up to Kinglake without a resident pass on your car, but I went up with my brother, and I got to see people I hadn’t seen in ages, their faces still half shocked, each of them perpetually on the brink of tears. The horrors they explained to me are difficult to comprehend, and while several books have been written about the Black Saturday fires, none of them has come close to expressing the emotion they shared, even in the smallest details.
These are events which etch themselves into the psyche of those in its wake, the smoke seeps into their bones and becomes a part of who they are. No one can fully comprehend the enormity of such an incident. In my mind, fire moves slow, you can see it coming from a mile off and you can get away if you leave in time. That’s not the reality that these people faced.
I’ve heard stories of animals on fire, writhing in the smoke, human bodies in burnt out car wrecks, shrivelled and shrunken in. My brother was part of a CFA team that rescued a young girl, who took shelter in a dam as the fire front hit. Her skin was basically melting off her bones as she ran to meet them. These are not images you can shake out of your mind, the impacts of such events will linger inside these people forever.
Now, ten years later, we’re witnessing yet another major fire event. And while debate rages around what could have been done, what sparked the blazes, and how we address future threats, keep in mind the people at the centre of this. The people who’ve lost everything, things that insurance cannot recover. Pets, memories. A sense of place. A feeling of home. It’s easy to overlook these things when it’s not you that’s impacted, but the ripples of this catastrophe will resonate throughout these communities, and the nation more broadly, for years to come.
Research shows that over a quarter of the people who were in the worst affected areas during Black Saturday showed signs of significant mental health problems, while PTSD and suicide rates rose as people struggled to recover.
If you can help, please do so wherever you can, and if you know of anyone in the impacted areas, please reach out to them and let them know that you’re there, and that you’re ready to listen if ever they need. It’ll also be important, at some stage, that people look to head back to the coastal areas, in particular, to visit, as towns which are largely reliant on tourist income have also been hit by this crisis.
Definitely, people have a right to demand answers from the government as to its lack of action in this respect, but make sure that anger doesn’t overtake the need to consider the humanitarian impact, which will stretch on for lifetimes.
You can donate to the Red Cross or Salvation Army relief efforts to directly benefit bushfire victims, you can also donate to the RSPCA Bushfire Appeal and the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) who are working to provide assistance for impacted wildlife, while The Black Dog Institute and Fearless are both working to assist the victims of post-traumatic stress. Comedian Magda Szubanski is also raising money to help bushfire victims long term with trauma and mental health support.
Main image via @gnat_fly/Twitter