Friday, April 5, 2013

The Yarra Valley, Warburton and Fire

2009 was a bad year for bushfires in Victoria, specifically around the Yarra Valley. I didn't live there but did work at the time for Centrelink, Australia's social services agency, and was a part of the team that had, as its job, to contact everyone in the area.

Now some people contacted us - there were specific hotlines set up - the rest we did our best to call. As well as the $2000 emergency payment that most were eligible for, we also checked if they had other needs that we could assist with.

 For some it was assistance with food or clothes (millions of dollars (and tons) of items were being donated from across Australia and trucked into the area) , others wanted to find out if such-and-such was okay, or to find somewhere to say. We did our best to put them in contact with relevant NGOs and other agencies. We (Centrelink) also offered counsellors but mostly people just wanted to talk and talk they did.  I blogged some of them at the time.

It was hard, it was gruelling, at times I shed many a tear as the person on the other end of the line did the same. I went home and dreamed of their stories. This went on for weeks. The first anniversary commemorations on the radio and tv bought it all back and the nightmares started over again. I avoided all of the following years' commentaries.

I was thinking of none of this when coming down the highway last Friday. That was until I spied a big green sign that had an arrow to Flowerdale, one  of the affected towns. I hadn't realised I was so close, or that I was staying "in the zone".

Even now four years later there is evidence in the area of the destruction brought on by those fires. Yes there is a lot of regrowth in the forests, the towns appear to have been rebuilt and, on Good Friday, were particularly vibrant and active but I could see the scars of blackened tree trucks. My anxiety levels were up and I was on alert for the whole drive to where I was staying.

Warburton was one of the towns on the edge of the disaster. Relatively it was untouched but only becuase of a late change of wind,.

Warburton is an amazing community - full of art and life and color. Looking out of the window of where I am staying, or at any of the many many trees growing throughout the townships brings me the sense of delight that trees invariably do.

But if I look up at the mountain, heavily forested with trees, I can only "see" flames consuming it, my hands sweat, my breath quickens, my blood pressure rises, tears well up and I feel very unsafe.I can hear the stories as loudly as I could on the day of the calls

I have lived at the foot of the tree covered mountains around Bellingen for 7 years and never had this reaction. I sit and imagine now the Bello mountains and I feel happy thoughts, the same reaction as they always. It isn't "mountains" that distress me, it is these mountains.

I know this is the first time I have been to the area - either before or after the fires. What I wonder is that if I am having this reaction from my peripheral contact, how is the healing process going for everyone else who was directly affected.

Give me floods over fire any day.

PS I write this up from the safety of Tassie - I handwrote bits as I was traveling but now I have my first solid computer time. Even as I type my anxiety levels are up and I am weeping.

Image: "Bushfire near Kinglake" from Science In Public

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