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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee

After the fire

“There is nothing permanent except change.” -Heraclitus

Written April 2020

This has not been the year I expected it to be. Although the signs were there that something extraordinary was happening in my part of the world. We had been breathing smoke for a month with fires that were north of us. Family and friends had checked in with me to ensure that all we were safe and that the danger zone was many kilometres away. Christmas was on the horizon and we had no plans other than having a day at the beach and a belly full of prawns and a very nice Tassie Pinot Gris. But even that went askew.

The week before Christmas we came down with a flu that was so debilitating that I now realise that I’ve never had the flu before in my life. My limbs simply wouldn’t work and the thought of dragging my head off the pillow was inconceivable. On Christmas day there was no way any food could be prepared let alone eaten. At one point I saw my husband gnawing on a piece of unheated plum pudding; things were bad.

And just as we began to recover the fire, that I thought could never reach us, came knocking. It seemed unbelievable that the inferno that had shut all roads in and out of the bay would sweep down the mountain and into the heart of my hometown. Even as the evacuation notifications started pinging on the phones, disbelief stalled action. We were keeping abreast of the information while we still had power but the images of the beast and everything it had already consumed still provided no real preparation for what was to come.

New Year’s Eve was like no other experience. People left their homes as the flames spread into the residential areas and the beach at Malua Bay became an unofficial evacuation point. Safety on the beach seemed logical. Water and fire being natural enemies. We packed one car with the things we thought were valuable enough to save (hard drives, photos, a few clothes, first aid kit) and drove it down to the beach. And then went home. We thought we would be better off waiting for the inevitable there and eliminating spot fires should they flare up around the house.

We stayed in the front yard with two garden hoses at the ready. And then it began. First came the orange sky and air that engulfed the entire neighbourhood and an intense wind that drove heat into our faces rending our garden hoses useless. Then came a darkness that signalled we were probably in the belly of the thing. The sound was relentless and mechanical. Initially I thought that heavy earth moving equipment was at work, but it was simply the sound of the fire. It was grinding its way towards us; consuming family homes, cars and businesses at will. In the background were explosions; gas bottles I assumed. Each one sounding closer; every noise unpredictable and threatening. But we stood our ground. Occasionally one of us would disappear into the darkness to see how close the flames were or to look down the hill at the people huddled on the beach. Burnt leaves and ash descended and landed on us, the house and the one car we kept close in case we had to make a run for it.

And at some point; I don’t know when as the time frame of the day alludes me; but the wind direction changed and blew the flames back on itself and sadly on to other communities. We were as safe as we could be. No power, phones or news of the devastation or how long we would remain in this state of bewilderment.

Now I’m not writing this to only describe what transpired on the day (or what I can remember happened). But I wanted to examine for myself the profound changes that this summer of fire and fear had on me. I was not afraid for our lives; we had a sensible plan. I wasn’t frightened that we would lose our house because I knew that we would be able to fix that. But I did feel fear on that day and subsequently. It was the fear that we were on the cusp of an enormous change. A shift to something unknown. That what we had previously known would be unrecoverable.

It felt enormous and unmanageable.

We had no cash, no power, no means of communication and the reality of the devastation was everywhere. Of course, the community and the government agencies rallied. Thousands of power poles and lines and mobile towers were repaired in record time. Garbage collection resumed at some point despite the counsel refuse centres having burned. We got use to being without power and then celebrated when it resumed. Wept when it went again and rejoiced cautiously when it reappeared. Beaches were closed due to the fire debris. Supermarkets were a nightmare with queues snaking around the aisles of every store. Communication took longer to restore. Everyone looked shell-shocked

Those who had lost their homes and businesses struggled to comprehend the inferno that came and went. Summer had been consumed by months of smoke and the fiery beast that lurked in the mountains and struck with indiscriminate fury. What we had taken for granted was upended so easily.

And when the ash settled and the burnt landscape took a tentative step towards recovery the human disquiet remained. I was rattled. Not overwhelmed but very aware that we had endured a time of danger, trauma and fear. It felt as though we could not simply go back to business as usual. The blame game commenced and, in some part, contributed to the sense of dread. Someone put up a sign saying ‘Kill the Greens’. It made me cry more than I did when the fire was almost upon us. It seemed senseless and cruel and implied that people who spoke for their environment could so easily be blamed for the terrible disaster.

The smoke, the fire, the aftermath all brought me to the conclusion that change was upon us. It is time for a review. Time to be our best selves; to make a contribution beyond our own comfort and to understand that perhaps our environment needs a tender hand. No matter how small a difference we can make; we should make it. It does help address the fear of change when we take a small step in the right direction.

And if the fire wasn’t enough to remind us to be better global citizens with respect for our environment and each other the pandemic is really making the point. Australians have jokingly requested the cancellation of 2020! And for a moment I was prepared to sign the petition. However, despite it all, and the quivery fear, I know this is the year that we can demonstrate the best of ourselves. Not just the medical teams, scientists, fire fighters, police, the government agencies, disaster recovery people, the educators but writers, artists, performers and ordinary citizens have been given the cue to step up. It is the time for change. The world has spoken!!

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