I walked Spud this morning, a couple of hours after sunrise. The sun was hanging, a bloody harvest moon, in the haze of smoke that surrounds us.
It is a week since the fires raged through Victoria. Do they have a name for this one yet, I wonder? Black Saturday? Hell Day? When you compare the death toll with tsunami and earthquake we have reason to be gratefull, but whole communities are trying to cope with trauma. I see my neighbours down in Yarra Glen and the shock is still on their faces. They stayed to defend, and survived, thank goodness, but when the building they were in caught fire, their dogs were too afraid to follow them through the flames to safety, and perished.
There are so many stories of heroism and tragedy. A work-mate berating himself for being a bad father because he did not evacuate in time, and put his family through the terror of the inferno. But he saved them. His family are all alive and they still have a house. When a fire is travelling at 180 kms per hour there is no warning. Survival is the only measure of whether your decisions have been good or bad.
Yet surviving leaves us free to feel guilt. Our house is damaged and uninhabitable, but we have something left. We have the luxury of sorting through the soot damaged trash and treasure that didn't burn or melt. We can decide if something is worth trying to save. When everything is ash you don't have that choice. And I feel guilt that I should feel pain when I have so much to be gratefull for and so little to mourn.
I feel guilt that I ran. Perhaps if had stayed I could have saved the house. But I did not really have a choice. Some primal instinct compelled me to run.
I knew we would be safe in Yarra Glen, but it was a fearful safety. As the town was surrounded by fire, there was panic. I was staying with my friend Jo. Another friend called to ask for shelter. She was coming from Steeles Creek. She drove through flames, wrecking her car, but somehow she and her daughter arrived safely, scared and anxious. Their concern was not for their house but for the horses that would not allow themselves to be loaded into the float and the dogs that had run away. Their concern was for father and husband, somewhere on a fire crew, fighting with the CFA.
Several times I walked to the corner where there was a view of the ridge near my home. I saw the flames come over the ridge and prepared myself for the worst. My children and I were safe, with a carload of precious items saved (including Spud). Nev had called to say that he was safe but would stay with the fire truck, on hand in case they were needed. And I returned to Jo's, trying to stay calm, trying not to add to the distress in the house.
When I was at school on Thursday, I heard sirens going to the fire near Healesville. As my body tensed itself to flee I realised that I was still living that night in Yarra Glen, surrounded by smoke, patrolling for ember attack, listening to sirens move about the outskirts of town, protecting us. The sound may have been one of safety, but I had not yet come to terms with my own trauma. We were safe and well, but those were long hours to fret and worry and fear. I cannot imagine the pain of people whose experiences were more terrifying, the pain of people who have lost someone close to them.
One of the worst things about that Saturday was the reports in the media. We already knew that it was disastrous in our area, yet we were not mentioned in the reports. No-one knew. What might have been happening elsewhere? The house we are staying at now (one of Nev's mates in the CFA was in the middle of renovating it to turn it into a B & B) doesn't have reception for the TV. I'm glad. I am feeling a lot better now, but every time I hear of some new horror I just want to weep. I picked up the papers from school on Thursday, hoping for a long-range weather forecast. I fear, as everyone else does, that this is not over yet. But I could not read the papers. They are buried under other stuff so I cannot see the pictures of people who perished. Survivor's guilt? I'm struggling a bit with my own situation. I can't cope with the knowledge of all the suffering out there. It's just too much.
And the community around me are showing their true colours. I have been uncomfortable with taking charity, but Jo explained it to me. People just want to help. I have to let them. So we have a roof over our head, crockery to eat from, and new clothes for Cody, who lost the most in the fire. (His room was worst damaged at our home, and his dad's house was completely destroyed.)
And so, life goes on. I hope, as the drama fades, that people do not forget their ability to work together as a community. The people united are a force to be reckoned with.