Strathewen resident Robert Bell thought he’d been coping well all year.
A sensitive man by nature, he fiddles with a home-rolled cigarette and cup of coffee while remembering his escape from the Black Saturday fires with his 94-year-old neighbour, but his voice remains calm and doesn’t recall feeling afraid.
Nearly a year later, he is still looking for a shed to live in, but he has developed a daily routine that helps: mornings spent weeding the bush – for the love of it – a lunchtime visit to the Hurstbridge support centre for a cuppa and a chat, then off to his shift work in a haulage firm.
Then, around Christmas, he suddenly felt a huge loss.
“I feel like I’ve lost my whole identity,” he said then, surprised by the force of it. “I think it’s only just hit me.”
Individuals are finding each their own path to recovery, which has to be taken at their own pace, but as they prepared for the February 7 anniversary, many spoke of an overwhelming exhaustion.
Driving along the St Andrews-Kinglake Road, there is a mixture of rebuilt homes, new slabs showing promise for the future – and land for sale by those who got so far then decided they could go no further.
“Everyone was going to return to start with,” recalls Sonja Parkinson, whose house was one of about 30 lost in Ninks Road, St Andrews. Miraculously, no one was injured – at least not physically.
“I think for some people it suddenly all got too hard.”
Weighed down with a chest infection, a fractious three-year-old and a mountain of work to be done rebuilding both their business and a shed for temporary accommodation on their creek-side site, she had almost hit the wall herself.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging because all the government help and donations have been really good, but everything just takes so much effort – everyone’s exhausted.
“It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who are very vulnerable will find it really difficult to get through – I wouldn’t be surprised if not all the money had been accessed at the end.”
Applications for grants close in February and many credit the Hurstbridge Support Centre – run by a band of volunteers since March – with helping them sort through the paperwork and keep going.
For at least six days a week over the past 10 months, a band of volunteers has been there to support those affected by the Black Saturday fires.
Ask how they did it and organiser Helen Legg will say the team could not have managed without the support of the survivors themselves, some of whom cooked meals, others unloaded trucks of boxes and furniture and one even donated $1000 after burglars broke into the Hurstbridge-based centre and stole money from the sale of fund-raising calendars.
“Most of these people are very independent and they need to give something back,” she explains.
In-kind gifts and those who keep giving
There has been a lot of giving over the past year – first the generous donations of cash and in-kind goods and help in the immediate wake of the fires, then the ongoing kindness, labour, sympathy, and non-judgemental support that volunteers have contributed since then – some on a daily basis.
At the Hurstbridge centre – unofficially nicknamed Helen’s Place – a dedicated band of women have put in hours of effort to meet the ever-changing needs of displaced residents from nearby St Andrews, Strathewen, Arthurs Creek, Strath Creek, Kinglake and further afield.
Begging the use of an empty weatherboard opposite the primary school – generously given by an owner who turned down an 18-month lease in favour of its community use with no guaranteed rent – the centre has become a second home to many survivors who call by, often daily, for a coffee, chat, quiet cry or just a packet of toilet paper and some new clothes.
“In the early days we had a lot of people who were very traumatised and who still hadn’t even accessed any government support. There were people who were still shell shocked and a lot of elderly people who were trying to cope with the whole cleaning up their house and just became so overwhelmed because every time they thought all the black soot had gone the wind would blow it all back in,” Helen recalled.
The mix of personalities at the Hurstbridge centre helped them break through, buoyed by the constant banter and laughter that the close friends all share – although when the visitors have gone for the day and a bottle of Chardy is opened, the humour often turns dark: “That’s how we coped,” Fiona explained.
Quieter visitors tended to hang around in the back rooms with down-to-earth, natural comedian Fiona, who would put folk at ease until they were ready to talk about accessing more formal aid.
“We’d be constantly taking people down to Arthurs Creek and Diamond Creek to get them hooked up with those official government services, or to get them a blue form that gave them access to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and other grants,” Helen continued.
In the winter – one of the coldest on record and a nightmare for those still ‘camping out’ – the centre set up a cosy lounge area and a makeshift laundry in the carport, and the girls would do people’s washing as they shopped or battled the endless paperwork.
When Mick Gatto reportedly had a run in with Christine Nixon about donating $800,000 that she allegedly rejected, Helen rang Jon Faine on ABC Radio “just for a laugh” and said “if Mick Gatto wants to do something I’ve got a long list of people who need white goods”.
While Helen never heard from Mr Gatto, she did get a call from the Bayside Church who’d been wanting to contribute; they agreed to set up a white goods program that is just starting to wind down, after contributing more than $200,000 worth of new cookers, fridges, washing machines – all specially chosen to meet families’ specific needs – as well as laptops for Year 12 students and businesses.
Back in her ‘normal’ job as a flight attendant, Helen met Bill Shorten on a flight and asked him to organise a visit from Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb.
“He really spoke to them – he really understood what they were going through and put in so much time with people,” Helen said.
Then there was lobbying for containers for people to store this largesse, as well as specific projects, such as a replacement piano for a musician who’d lost everything and a new motorbike for a teenager who lost both his brand new bike and his best friend in the fires.
“He’s a great lad but his world had just crashed.
“We spent ages with him looking for the right replacement. Jake saved $1500, his mum and dad gave $1000 each, the two community health services in Nillimbuk gave $500 each, Diamond Valley Baptist Church gave $500 and Bayside Community Care gave $2500 and we gave a measly $100 for some gear, and we presented it to him two weekends ago,” Helen said. “I got a lovely text from him last weekend saying ‘I’ve been riding it all weekend and it’s sweet as – thanks so much’, and his mum texted to say ‘I can see a change in him already’. “
Being caught up in such a flood of physical and emotional needs have seen many volunteers – and survivors – develop a whole new set of skills. Others have re-thought their lives and, embracing the new, have moved on from lifestyles or relationships that suddenly seemed flawed.
Volunteers co-ordinated a number of working bees in the St Andrews area until public liability insurance became a problem. In Nillumbik, the council has taken over this task and is still keen to sign up new volunteers.
“We’ve been getting the Conservation Volunteers Australia to help out recently because all the regular volunteers are exhausted after helping all year,” Council co-ordinator Sue Aldred said.
First, swallow your pride…
Ironically for folk who have spent the past 20 years supporting the East Timorese people through the Dili All-Stars, trombonist Sonja Parkinson and her husband Colin Buckler – former drummer with the Painters and Dockers – have found it hard being on the receiving end of help.
“We’ve found it really uncomfortable accepting all these things but we’ve had to learn to. It’s easier to accept the official grants than cash from individuals.”
After a distant cousin read about Sonja and Colin’s story online – how they sheltered in the burning house with three other families until the last minute, then escaped to a creek refuge, along with two lyre birds, just seconds before the house collapsed – Sonja even received help from an unknown Parkinson in Canada, who worked out they were related and sent cash.
The many thoughtful gifts have had a huge impact.
“Our case worker got us a Christmas tree, and Sam was given this lovely little table and chair set from some part-time bus drivers in Bacchus Marsh, plus we received a beautiful quilt… there are so many kind people.”
It’s good to have some positives to balance out memories such as the week after the fires, when each day would bring news of another friend confirmed lost from the hill above their house – Kinglake’s notorious Bald Spur Road, where only three people survived.
The journey home
Sonja and Colin kept visiting their block from day one, but others who stayed away are finding it harder to return.
Helen Legg has found that those who left their homes before the fires hit are dealing with rebuilding better than those who experienced the inferno. Those with young children are also finding the rebuilding hard work and Helen is also concerned that former residents who have found accommodation out of the area are not been getting the support they need.
Further along Ninks Road, retiree Steve Law has been slowing working away at preparing his block for rebuilding – a new house site has been excavated and the old footings will form the basis of a memorial garden – but when he finally reached the point where he felt ready to get his block BAL assessed for fire threat level, he discovered the free scheme had closed. He still plans to get a shed up and caravan onsite by February – but isn’t so optimistic about how he’ll persuade his wife Vicki to return.
“She’s not real keen,” he admits.
They stayed to fight the fire but, despite their toughened glass staying intact, their curtains exploded into flames from the radiant heat, forcing them to find refuge by the Diamond Creek – along with a small herd of goats, some ducks and a singed wallaby.
For many of those receiving rental help from insurance companies, the money runs out in early February – some earlier – so the financial pressure is on, too.
“People think we’re rolling in insurance money, but it’s cost me $19,000 just getting the block ready and, with the new building standards, everything’ll cost more, too,” he said.
No one is quite sure how they will react to the first code red day this summer; one case worker said it took her several hours to calm a Strathewen survivor who thought she smelled smoke on a 39C day in December.
Then there is the anniversary itself to deal with.
Sharing the experience – and strength
But there is a strong sense of sharing. A survivor now living in a caravan on her land relates how touched she was when a young man pulled up one evening with a six-pack of beer.
“He said ‘I’m living in a caravan too and I don’t know if your husband enjoys a drink, but I’ve been driving past every day on my way home from work and decided it was time to call in and say hello’.
“They ended up talking for hours.”
It’s the women who have really led the way with looking after each other.
One of the strongest support networks that has emerged in the aftermath of the fires is the Ladies of the Black Belt, formed when a group of St Andrews women realised how few of their neighbours they knew – and how many needed help and support.
“Most of us live on acreage so you don’t see a lot of your neighbours; we thought afterwards we really should get together and help each other through this thing,” Rae said.
A list of about 78 directly affected women in St Andrews North was pieced together and in May, 21 of them returned to the Black Belt for a lunch – held at the repaired vineyard home of Cathy Lance.
Since that first emotional meeting the group has remained in contact, meeting two or three times a month, cementing friendships, having fun and sharing enormous support.
“It is the silver lining that now we have discovered the friendship and support of so many talented, interesting individuals,” says Cathy.
“We meet for coffee about every three weeks,” adds Elizabeth, who knew 17 of those lost in the fires.
“It’s the only group of people I feel truly safe with.”
Widowed and rendered homeless on Black Saturday, Elizabeth admits she still has very bad days when she does not cope.
“I bumped into a neighbour outside the shops the other day and he said: ‘You good, Elizabeth?’ I’d had an awful week and just went off at him: ‘Of course I’m not good! How could I be good?’ “
But all agree that, without the fellowship of the Black Belt – and support from centres such as Helen’s Place – they would be far worse.
“We didn’t really have a plan when we started, and we still don’t have plan,” laughs Fiona, wife of a CFA volunteer, and a stalwart of the Hurstbridge support centre since day one. “We thought ‘Well, it’ll stay open at least a month’.”
Now they are hoping the centre might become a place to sell the art and handiwork survivors have created.
“I think that’s our strength,” counters Helen. “We changed to meet people’s needs as they emerged, and we’re still evolving.”
POST SCRIPT June 2010: Steve was right; his wife didn’t want to return and they have now bought a property in Albury, where they are settling in well. Rob has now retired and weeds all day long if he can – and feels a lot better for it. But, as the second winter sets in, Rae is still living in a caravan. At least one other person in this story is now divorced, and one is in a new relationship.