Tag Archives: Victorian bushfires

Speeches at the Bushfire Memorial Service

People often decry the internet as a source of misinformation and ill-formed views, but  I reckon that talkbalk radio is even worse.  I only listen to talkbalk radio when I really can’t find anything else, like at 4.00 a.m. on Monday morning, when the ABC indulges in playing just two or three notes, intoning endlessly hour after hour; or when SBS and ABC news radio decide that they are both going to take exactly the same feed of English soccer.  So it was in desperation that I tuned in to talkback radio on Sunday night/Monday morning, and heard a woman talking about the Bushfire Memorial Service that morning.

She enjoyed the service, she said, but ” then one of those politicians got on, and said “remember this and vote for me at the next election””.

What?????? I didn’t hear that!!  But then, the next morning, I read the summary in The Age of the speeches given at the memorial.  When I looked at Kevin Rudd’s speech, I wondered why I bridled against it on hearing it on Sunday.  Had I, too, heard something that wasn’t said? As I heard it, he was making a claim that Australians have a particular claim on universal human values,  over and above that of other people, and that values like courage and compassion were Australian values.  Yet, The Age report said no such thing.

Then I noticed the “This is an edited extract of the speech” disclaimer at the bottom.  So here is Rudd’s full speech, with the parts that were omitted from The Age summary in bold.

Fellow members of the great Australian family.

When the histories of nations are written, there are times which sorely test each nation’s soul.

Whether through the carnage of human conflict or through the terrifying forces of nature unleashed.

This nation Australia has just been put to such a test.

And you the people of Australia, you the people of Victoria, and most especially you the people of these fire-ravaged communities – you have faced the test – and you have not been found wanting.

As a people, we weep for the lost.

We tend the injured.

We console the suffering.

And yet our work has barely begun.

In meeting this great test, as a people, and as a nation, we have drawn deep on our ancient values and given them fresh voice in our modern age.

Values of courage.

Values of compassion.

Values of steely resilience.

These are Australian values. Values also of our deepest common humanity.

For on Black Saturday, what we saw at work was the worst of nature yet the best of humanity.

What is courage?

We know it by instinct. We see it. We feel it.

Courage is a fire fighter standing before the gates of hell – unflinching, and unyielding and with eyes of steel saying this: “Here I stand, I can do no other”.

Courage is neighbour saving neighbour.

Courage is stranger saving stranger.

Courage is all these things as brave women and men in their lives and in their deeds these last weeks have written a new chapter in our nation’s story.

A new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old.

Courage. And compassion.

In recent days, we have witnessed unspeakable suffering.

We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children, family and friends and neighbours.

All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal.

But simply know this: you who suffer are not alone.

This great Australian family, here assembled and across the nation today, is with you. And led by an almighty army of Australian volunteers stretched across this vast continent.

And beyond our shores, know too that you are also surrounded by an ocean of compassion from every country on God’s earth.

In some countries, tragedy exposes the fault lines in a nation.

The strong abandoning the weak; one region indifferent to the sufferings of another, one culture uncaring as to the needs of another.

But ours is a different nation. Our nation has been as one.

Australia – a nation of compassion. Courage and compassion. And the third of these great values: resilience.

What we have seen in each of these communities is resilience writ large.

Resilience reflected in the absolute and resolute determination to rebuild.

And this is where the nation comes in.

A solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild: brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community.

Governments of all persuasions and at all levels have failed communities in the past. Let us resolve not to fail these communities in the future.

To say this is easy. To do this will be hard and the path will be uneven.

But let us resolve, learning from the mistakes of the past, to rebuild together.

To rebuild Marysville, Narbethong and Toolangi.

To rebuild Kinglake, Kinglake West and Flowerdale.

Strathewen, St Andrews and Humevale.

Wandong, Heathcote Junction and Upper Plenty.

Churchill, Callignee and Koornalla.

Steels Creek and Yarra Glen.

These names and others that are now etched deep in the nation’s memory.

For the truth is this: each of these communities is Australia – and we would be a lesser Australia without any of them. So let us to the task.

Last Sunday as I travelled on the road to Kinglake, it was as if I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I spoke with a young woman from a community nearby who had lost everything but survived. She told me she had spent yesterday with her Dad, starting to clean up the wreckage.

She told me the first thing they did was to plant a charred sapling in the burnt ground as their flag pole – and put up our nation’s flag.

She told me she and her Dad then sat quietly together just looking at the flag – and then to work.

Our nation’s flag now flies across the charred remains of these precious communities – flags by the hundred.

Flags of courage. Flags of compassion. Flags of resilience. Flags of hope.

Great Australian values that will see Australia through this great testing of our nation’s soul.

So let us resolve today that from this time forth, on every 7th of February, this nation’s flag will fly at half mast, this nation will pause for a moment’s silence, to honour those lost and to reaffirm afresh, this great rebuilding for the future.

As we rise together in hope, from the ashes of despair.

I don’t know about you, but all this flag-worship and jingoism still makes me uncomfortable, and I find myself wondering if it was only omitted from the Age report of the speech for space reasons. After all, the photo in the middle of the page could have been cropped by a few centimetres, and the whole speech could have been transcribed.  But it wasn’t.

The following day, there was a letter to the editor asking why  Auntie Joy Murphy’s speech had not been transcribed.  I found myself wondering the same thing.  It was one of the first speeches, before people felt able to applaud, and yet I thought it was the most comforting of them all.  It did not have the ra-ra “let’s get in there and build, build, build!!” tone of many of the other speeches.

This is just from memory because I can’t find a transcript- so it might be just as inaccurate as the talkback caller in the middle of the night.  What I heard was that she spoke as a woman from Healesville, which although not burnt out, was surrounded by the fires on the Saturday.  She spoke also as a Wurundjeri elder.  Her people had burnt the land every seven years, she said, but what happened on Saturday was not that sort of burning- instead of healing the land, it  tortured the land.  (And this is something that I don’t think is being said often enough: that the fire on Saturday was not the bushfire that we smell on the breeze and see as a ring around the sun every year; it was something different.)  But she also said that the bush will grow back, by itself.  (And that’s something that our men-are-from-Mars politicians are trying to rush through too: the urge to get in there and fix it, while the country itself, in its own time, will heal itself).

And there’s something very comforting, very timeless in that.

Victorian bushfires memorial service

I decided that I would go to the bushfires memorial service this morning.  I knew that it was being televised, but I didn’t want to sit alone in my lounge room watching it.  I’m not really sure what I wanted it to be, and hence my ambivalence about it, I suppose.   I didn’t want it to be about what it could do for me,  but I did want to mark my respect and acknowledge the loss, and I wanted to do it with other people.

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The sound of St Paul’s Cathedral bells marked the start of the service, and I was surprised that there were not more bells- a sign, perhaps, of the gradual disappearance of city churches in the central business district.  The crowd was smaller than I anticipated, although it built as the service went on.  It was a sombre gathering: certainly no-one sang the national anthem.

The service opened with the didgeridoo- a haunting, ethereal, intensely Australian  sound, and Auntie Joy Wandin’s welcome to country which, actually, I thought was most heartfelt address given.   There was a succession of politicians and church leaders shown on the large screen- “Our Quentin” who is surely as regal as Her Maj, the Governor, the Prime Minister, Premier, Opposition leaders etc.   Most of them spoke- even though words are inadequate and superfluous- and I was surprised by the little ripples of applause that started, at least at Fed Square, for Princess Anne.  As the service went on, people were more likely to applaud the speaker- I’m not sure if the later speakers were any more eloquent or insightful than the earlier ones or whether it was just that people felt less inhibited about clapping as time went on.

At times the choice of music seemed somewhat oblique- Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluia” with its inappropriate lyrics which are obscure at the best of times, and a rapturously delivered “Reach out and touch somebody” by Michael Paynter (who I’d never heard of but evoked shades of Hillsong evangelical church)  once we’d moved onto the feel-good part of the ceremony.

And, though I hate to admit it, it was Kevin Rudd’s speech that had me shifting most uncomfortably. He admitted that the human qualities shown through the fires were universal , but then proceeded to wrap them up in the Aussie-values rhetoric that could just as easily come from John Howard at his most hubristic.   Ironically, Bruce Woodley’s “I am, you are, we are Australian” was less overtly nationalistic, with two specially penned verses that felt like a gift to the country at a time when something more had to be added to our view of ourselves.

I felt as if I was been ‘evented’ at this service-  start with some sombre reflection, then a dash of nationalism, then some upbeat, feel-good stuff to send us on our way tapping our feet.  There was remarkably little emphasis on the people who had died- I envisaged, with some trepedation, an acknowledgement of individuals who had died, similar perhaps to the tolling of the bell for each person who died in the Twin Towers.  Perhaps it’s because they don’t know the final toll yet; perhaps even an acknowledgement that the bushfires may be with us tomorrow, or Friday when the hot winds come again. Or perhaps that would be just too painful for now.

It’s interesting to note that people from the bushfire regions spurned the buses laid on to bring them en masse to the city for the memorial. They turned instead to their own community, and watched it from their showgrounds and footy grounds.  Perhaps they were not ready to be turned into an event, either.

The image that stays with me from these fires is one that they used, ironically enough, to advertise the televising of this memorial service on Channel 2: a thick, evil green, glowing ball of smoke and ash, rolling along a road towards you- a sight truly from hell.   Surely anyone who looked at that and survived, would be changed forever.

For me, the most affecting part of the service was seeing photographs of what we have lost- little Marysville nestling in amongst the red and gold of autumn leaves; the tall, straight trees of the Black Spur wreathed in mist, that dry, dense bush around Kinglake.  I think that to stand in the bush again, and to smell it and listen to its shifting stillness, and to remember those two hundred people who also loved it and died in it, will be my best memorial.

A bloke I met last Saturday

Last Saturday morning I decided to go down to the shops to buy bread rolls for lunch.  The weather forecast was for horrendous conditions that afternoon, so I thought I’d nip down before it got too hot.  The shops are only two blocks away, and I decided to walk rather than worry about the car, even though it really was pretty hot- I was glad of my daggy hat and found myself walking in the shade when ever I could find it.

Macleod shops a few years ago

Macleod shops a few years ago

“Down the shops” is a little strip shopping centre, overlooking a large park.  It’s old-fashioned, but has everything there-  a baker, butcher, fruitshop, one  hairdresser, 2 milk bars, small grocer, one restaurant, one coffee shop, and a couple of gift shops.  I stopped at the gift shop- they’d redone their window display and then I noticed that it was under new management as well.  The window looked beautiful- really tastefully laid out with things that made you look twice and check out the price- quite reasonable too.

There was a man in overalls, reaching up across the door.  I didn’t know if he was a workman or the owner.  “Doesn’t the window look great?” I said.  “It’s my wife’s shop” he said, “we only did the display last night”.   They’d bought the business before Christmas, he said, but had only just opened up a room upstairs and at the back.  “Well, tell your wife  it looks great” I said, then headed up to the bakery.

The man is dead now.  So is his wife.  Their photos were on the front page of the Age in a montage of photographs of people who died in the bushfires.

I don’t know this man- he was just someone I spoke to that morning.  There are people who know him, them, and love them: I’m just someone who passed by the shop that morning and passed a quick greeting.   I can’t believe that they worked that morning; he fixed the airconditioner or door closer or whatever it was that he was fiddling with; they shut up the shop at 1.00 and then they went home for the last time.

Perhaps it’s because I live in the north-east suburbs that many of these outer-suburban people commuted to, but this is hitting hard.  A woman who worked where my husband used to is dead- in the photo she’s leaning over her son at his 18th birthday last Thursday, smiling into the camera.  A colleague at work has lost his house; a fellow student escaped with his laptop and thesis from a house that is now destroyed.  Everyone knows someone, or knows of someone.

I was looking at messages in the paper from other places in the world- I am praying for you; I am praying for you.  Even Barak Obama is praying for us.  I wish there was another word than “praying”.  I’m not praying: I think of them often; everyday things seem inconsequential, irrelevant and even blasphemous;  I hear the helicopters go over- there’s one just now- and realize with a shock that even though it’s quite cool today, the fires are still flickering; I  flip over to the weather forecast and see with some trepidation that the wind will shift round to the north and the temperature go back up into the low 30s early next week.   I realize that we are not immune from another day or days over 40 degrees again in 2 or 3 weeks time, and that it won’t be Marysville, Strathewen or Kinglake this time but somewhere else.

I’m not praying, but there’s a stab each time I think of all this loss.

Bushfires

Australia Felix, as Victoria used to be designated, is in shock and disbelief at the loss of life and property in the bushfires over the weekend- 103 lives lost and still counting.  Shock at the sheer numbers;  and disbelief, at least sitting here in the north-east suburbs of Melbourne that all this destruction was occuring in areas that we might drive through on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive less than fifty kilometres away.  It’s a cool morning: there’s not even a whiff of smoke on the air; the sky is clear; the sun has none of that sullen reddened glow that indicates that there’s fire somewhere.

The people of Port Phillip in the 1840s would have been aware of fires, but not fires of the magnitude we’ve seen this past weekend.   Most reports of fire  in the Melbourne newspapers of the early 1840s  related to house and shop fires fires within the town boundaries. For settlers further out, fires started through lightning or were lit by the aborigines either as an act of depredation against a particular settler, or as part of  land and food management.  Looking through my summaries of two years of the Port Phillip Herald, I can find only two mentions of bush-fires – both in January 1842- and interestingly both involve the natives.   The first report was of a fire at Port Lincoln in South Australia, which was caused when the Resident Magistrate there asked the natives into town at the full of the moon to receive rations of flour; some arrived with fire-sticks and a fire was started, although it was not clear whether the fire was accidental or not.  The second report, also in January 1842, made a correction to earlier reports that the blacks at Mr Bathes’ property in Westernport had fired four acres of barley and fencing.  In fact, instead of causing the fire, they had tried to extinguish it, and chief Gellibrand in particular was singled out for conducting himself in the most praiseworthy manner.

Bushfire seasons come and go- I can, for instance, remember driving with my mother up to Warrandyte in 1962 to collect my father who had been working on fire-breaks with his earthmoving machinery in the fires there.   Every time I drive past Lara on the way to Geelong, I remember the people who died in their cars on the Princes Freeway in 1969. But every few decades in Victoria, there are huge, state-wide conflagrations of a completely different magnitude.  This weekend was such a conflagration.

When reading through the newspapers of 1840s Port Phillip, it is instructive to remember that  for white settlers, this was a new colony, and the vagaries of temperature, rain, snow, bushfire were still largely unknown.  Black Thursday on 6 February 1851 was the first recorded widespread blaze,  covering a quarter of what is now known as Victoria including Portland, the Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts.  Twelve lives are recorded lost, along with over a million sheep.

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People of my parent’s generation still speak of  “Black Friday” of 13 January 1939, the day that until last Saturday held the record for the highest recorded temperature.  My father recalls seeing the ranges surrounding Healesville silhouetted with fire; just last week I was speaking to someone who  mentioned that her mother, having just given birth, was wheeled out onto the balcony of the city hospital, from where she could see the Dandenongs alight.  Seventy-one people died in the fires which devastated Noojee, Woods Point, Omeo, Warrandyte and Yarra Glen.

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And then Ash Wednesday, 16th February 1983- well within my memory.  A few days earlier there had been a huge dust-storm that rolled across Melbourne, then Ash Wednesday itself.  I recall watching, transfixed, the unfolding disaster on television, hour after hour, then walking out into the front garden in the dark with the sky glowing, ashes falling, and wondering if the whole world was going to combust.

And so, onto this last weekend.  On the Friday night, after a day of about 30 degrees, we watched the news where authorities were warning of extreme heat and fire danger on Saturday and worst bushfire conditions in Australia’s history.  It was difficult to believe- it was still with no breeze at all, and not unduly hot.  But, oh, things are so dry: Melbourne has been in drought for many years and has had the second-driest January rainfall figures on record- just one millimetre of rain compared to a January average of  48 mm.   The Saturday itself was oppressively hot, reaching the highest ever recorded  temperature of  46.4 degrees.  When you opened the door, it was like opening a fan-forced oven with the rush of dry heat and wind.  The wind got stronger and stronger with trees bending, dust whipping, but there was still no sign or smell of fire.  We did notice a large, towering white cumulus cloud to the north, but by then it had clouded over, and we thought that it must have been a storm cloud. Then, at about six o’clock, the cool change came through- even a few spatterings of rain.  We went to bed aware that there were still fires, that there were fears that what had been the fingers of the blaze would become the palm of the blaze on a much wider front once the wind swung around, but that perhaps it hadn’t been quite as bad as they predicted.

By the next morning, things had changed completely.  Fires that we hadn’t even been aware of, at Kinglake, at Marysville had wiped out the towns; 27 dead, maybe 40, then 65, then 93 and now over 100.   These are much-loved places.  Kinglake, some 20 kms away was where we had a camp every year in my long-ago born-again Christian days; I fell off a motor-bike there and still have the scar on my ankle; I drove there at about 50 kms a hour in my old Morris Major with a couple of girlfriends as my first foray as a new driver on country roads.

Marysville, home of all the Mary-guesthouses (Marylands, Mary-Lyn etc) built in the 1920s in mock-tudor style and the prettiest little main street with huge deciduous trees, with a crystalline creek  fringed with tree-ferns running through it.  We went there for September holidays at Marylands when I was a child in the 1960s;  I’ve camped beside the Steavenson River;  walked through the bush bird-watching,  my husband and I went there about five years ago, stayed at a guest-house,  ate at the pub, visited their historical society.

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My brothers horse-riding at Marysville, 1960s

And St Andrews- famed for its weekend market; Sunday lunch at the pub.    Chum Creek near Healesville- my father spent a couple of years up there in the 1930s/40s with his grandparents, attended the primary school,  lived through bushfires there, battled the blackberries and bracken there.  I wonder if his house is still standing?

There’s grief, disbelief, and a degree of helplessness about it all.  In recent years there’s been a change of attitude about staying to defend your house- they no longer force people to evacuate, but encourage householders to develop a fire-plan of clearing around their houses, dealing with ember attacks, wetting down the house etc.  The common wisdom is to evacuate early if you’re going to leave, or else stay and defend a well-prepared house from fire after the main front has gone through.  People know all this;  the whole state was in a heightened sense of readiness, fire-plans were made, people were ready to stay and defend and yet, in the middle of the noise, smoke, heat obviously the fear is just too much to bear and people flee.  There’s much more sadness to come.