Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, February 8, 2009

131 deaths, and counting.

This is not what my blog is meant to be for, and apologies to anyone who just wants mediaeval matter, please feel free to skip, but... stories need to be told. Skip to the end to just get to the donation links, if you're so inclined.

For those of you who don't know, this weekend saw the worst bushfires in Australia's history. Ash Wednesday 1983 was our previous record: 76 deaths. Huge swathes of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were burned, and across the Bass Strait in Tasmania, my parents could smell the smoke.

But the death toll for the fires that are still burning across Victoria and New South Wales stands, so far, at 131 [Update: 173] - in a time when we are better prepared, better organised, better informed. And the count is still rising. Bodies are still trapped in cars, crashed on roads as they tried to flee fires that came on faster than anyone could guess, driven by fierce winds and exacerbated by a hotter, dryer summer than any on record. There are undoubtably many bodies still trapped in burnt-out houses, but emergency crews have more pressing priorities than digging them out. Saturday was our hottest day on record - 46.5 where I live, 47.8 in other parts, doubtless furnace-like from radiant heat where the firefighters were.

My aunt and uncle live in Wandong. They're lucky - their house and their neighbours' are apparently the only two left standing in the town [Update: their neighbours' house is gone, and theirs now stands alone in a mess of black]. The official death count for Wandong is four - and the town is tiny - but from the snatches of conversation we've had with them (phone lines are out, of course, so they have to use their mobile batteries sparingly - they know many more people who have died. They evacuated on Saturday afternoon with the flames on their doorstep. They had waited too long, because their beloved border collie, lame in two legs, had fled in panic and they couldn't find her. They were also desperate for news of their block of land, not far outside the town - they knew the fires had been through that area. They keep four horses on it, have been restoring the old buildings on the land (both of them work for Heritage Victoria) and gradually restoring the native bush in the area. They went up to the block Saturday night, found the horses miraculously alive, and spent all night fighting spot fires there. They lost everything on the block, years of love and hard work, but the horses are still alive - I don't know in what condition [Update: Liz says next time there's a fire she'll stick with the horses - clearly they know what to do. The horse float in the shed on the block is burned to cinders, but the land rover right next to it is untouched]. Sunday [Update: and Monday, and Tuesday], they spent helping move everyone's livestock (at least that which didn't need euthanasia) to other areas, and fighting every-present spot fires, and Chloe (the collie) miraculously turned up at a friend's a long way away.

They are the lucky ones. Many of their friends are dead, almost all have lost their houses and near on everything they own. Some were uninsured. Many plantations, farms, land blocks in the area are devastated, and of course most places of employment in the town are burned out. Wandong is effectively destroyed as a community. And the pattern repeats itself across the state.

I think most people didn't realise the scale of this until they read this morning's newspapers, and heard the interviews on the radios with survivors and victims. All day, I've been having the same conversations with customers at our bakery - swapping stories, commiserating for relatives' or friends' losses, marvelling over escapes, repeating over and over "Isn't it awful? You just feel so helpless". Everyone feels so shell-shocked. It even creeps into ordinary exchanges that you usually wouldn't consider - "Good morning, how are you?" "Oh, I'm well, I'm fine - at least compared to so many other people out there today".

When I came home from work, I went through my wardrobe to see what I could spare. I ended up with five big garbage bags full of clothes, blankets and linen (alright, so my wardrobe may glut slightly) and another bag with miscellaneous things like childrens' books, umbrellas, sunglasses and handkerchieves, which I'm sure a lot of people will need right now. The Salvation Army is collecting anything people can spare to distribute to families who need them. If you're in Victoria, please consider it - I know most people can't spare much, but when people have lost everything, even a spare shirt so you can wash the one you've got on must mean something, mustn't it?

Monetary donations can be made from anywhere in the world to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army (or here for non-Australian donors). If you're in Victoria, again, consider donating to the Myers Bushfire Appeal (just go in to any Myers store): they'll give your money straight to the Salvation Army, but double it with their own money.

I will go and ring my grandmother again. She lives in Drouin, in Gippsland - one of the larger fires is burning through the Bunyip national park near there, but it's heading away from her now. We will swap stories, again, the same ones we've been telling other people all day, passing on the stories we heard in return. Because that's what people do - we reach out with out voices, we share stories, we make meaning.


Alianore said...

God, that's awful! I was so shocked when I heard the death-toll on the news this morning. No wonder everyone there is in a daze and horrified. I really hope your loved ones are all OK.

Ceirseach said...

So far, though Liz and Geoff have spent the last three days flat out helping everyone else in their community and putting out endless spot fires. I'm going up to visit my granny this evening, if I can - we're still not allowed through to Wandong.

Oh, and - 173, and rising.

kieranhosty said...

Hi Ceirseach - thanks for posting the blog - terrible news from Victoria. Glad to hear that Liz and Geoff are OK. Regards from Kieran in New South Wales - a friend of Liz and Geoff.

oldcar said...

I am so sorry to see the horrible fires and burned cars on the news. This is such a tragic loss for Australia and my heart goes out to all who lost family, friends, pets or homes. The world mourns with you! I hope that soon all the fires will be out. You are in my thoughts. Barb in the USA

Ceirseach said...

Hi Kieran. It is pretty nasty here - everyone's really pulling together to do everything they can to help, though, which is wonderful. We haven't heard from them for a few days beyond brief updates, but as far as I can tell they're still just working as hard as they can. I'm sure it's easier to do that than to stop and think.

Thank you for your thoughts, Barb. Unfortunately two of the larger fires are looking like they might join up, with the wind change that's coming through. But at least most people have evacuated, after the shock of the weekend, so there shoudln't be too many more lives lost, even if we do lose more towns.

It feels so strange, having the rest of the world looking at us and sending commiserations to us! We're used to being the ones who send help and commiserations to other countries.

Thank you for your thoughts.