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No ark in a firestorm


They're planning for about 300 dead. The magistrates, the coroners, the pathologists, the bureaucrats. Three hundred men and women and children. Hundreds and thousands more dogs and cats, cows and sheep, wombats, parrots, roos, rats, rabbits, snakes and horses. No ark from a firestorm.

Nobody here has been left untouched. That little boy performing conjuring tricks at a wedding in my family last January, he was so proud of where he lived: Kinglake. I call my cousin, heart in mouth. Mixed news: he and his mum Nicky are alive, but their old house burned to the ground. Now they're under ember attack in Healesville. Family friend Peter died in St Andrews defending his home. Her husband and in-laws are terribly distressed.

For me, the suffering and death are still at one remove. My housemate Myrna's brother and sister in law still have their house in Eaglehawk, but neighbours have lost theirs.

I've been working with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on its recruitment, training and culture. Suddenly none of it seems as important as the human services firefighters deliver.

It is dirty and dangerous work. Jamie, my son-in-law, has been a volunteer firefighter for 14 years, working for no reward but service, and with nominal insurance cover, in the filthiest and most dangerous of conditions.

But the current fires beat anything that has desperately frightened me for him before. This time I've been afraid for them all. The more you know, the more reason to fear. Firefighters take safety seriously, but God sent a blizzard this time, not a blaze.

What makes a firefighter? I've seen middle-aged women — volunteers, who wouldn't pass the meticulous physical (a 'mini Olympics', or the 'beep test') or the exams you have to pass to get into the Metropolitan Fire Brigade — shepherding flocks of flame right alongside great big male firefighters, saving lives and property.

Emotional intelligence, self-control, perseverance, courage and stubbornness: not soldiers, but citizens, ordinary women and men, professionals and volunteers, juniors and olds, without discrimination.

What can I do, I think, that first Sunday morning, other than being a nuisance at an emergency centre, or a gawker?

So I fall gratefully into something practical that I can do, fostering survivors' dogs and cats, collecting food, blankets, crates and carriers, leads and collars for those bewildered companion animals who survived but whose owners didn't, or whose family is missing or who simply can't keep them, having lost everything else.

I talk to coroners, magistrates and court administrators about those 300 expected dead. They'll need every part-time coroner, courts and administrative staff, court facilities and magistrates, transport and communication equipment, and every other resource available for the long, painful process that's about to start.

There are so few remains of some people that they will never be identified — there's simply nothing left. There's a backlog of unsolved cases in the notoriously under-resourced pathology labs, with the late demand for services brought on by deaths from the heatwave and, now, these firestorms.

My friendly public servant said she had gone to yesterday's briefing at the state coroner's court and came away, to her own alarm, shaking.

Nobody has been untouched. Last Sunday morning, they hired refrigerated containers, and housed them under marquees and behind screens, so that the truck drivers didn't have to see what some family members will have to see. They set up major family contact services and have now settled in for the long haul.

It will take many months just to work out who died and where. There are horrors to be faced, from the lumps you might notice from choppers — animal or human? — to the stories of those sad, narcissistic fire-lighters arrested in Gippsland, two in protective custody already. And more to come.

There isn't a workplace I know that doesn't have a staff member who has lost a house or who is still waiting for news about family which, sadly, is likely to be bad. My old staff member and her children are fighting ember attacks in Healesville. My newly married cousin's family is mourning Peter's death and the destruction of so much of their landscapes and memories.

I have friends still in the expected line of the fire near Beechworth, hoping that the fire is containable and that there will be little further damage. But the odds are not great.

Saturday was an inferno. The people on the front line have told me that it was like the fire bombing of Dresden. The fire could be 10 km away, and then within minutes it was at the doorstep. People tried to run, but were trapped in their cars — the fire was just too great. Whole towns have been wiped out.

I don't have the words to describe what it feels like. And I am at one remove from it all.

Victorian Bushfire Appeal — donate online

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: bushfires, orphaned animals, metropolitan fire brigade, county fireauthority, kinglake, marysville



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Existing comments

I'm still shellshocked from visiting the nuclear winter desolation of Kinglake, where I covered the fires for a UK paper. After filing stories until midnight Monday, Tuesday I put on my CFA gear and spent all day on a firetruck putting out spot fires, blacking out and checking properties for missing persons.

I've been abused for the CFA not saving homes and hugged by people relieved, yet guilty to be alive. The emergancy workers have all been marvellous during a dreadful time that defies description.

Alison Aprhys | 11 February 2009  

A moving piece, the sense it gives of the impact of the disaster on the people involved is deeply affecting. The appreciation it offers of the firefighters and of the practical sympathy of so many people make it a beautifully judged and inspiring response.

Joe Castley | 11 February 2009  

During last night's Melbourne concert, Leonard Cohen dedicated his song/prayer 'Anthem' to the victims of the bushfires:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Lovely. Lovely article too, Moira.

Charles Boy | 11 February 2009  

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