Recovering From a Bushfire: My Experience

Currently in Australia, you can’t turn on a piece of technology without seeing the outpouring of support from generous Aussies and even our friends from abroad who are looking for ways, small and large, to support people who have been impacted by the fires burning across the nation. I can only imagine that this was the same almost 11 years ago during the Black Saturday bushfires when my family and I lost our home.

We were inundated with support. It felt like in the days and weeks following Black Saturday, every person that our family had ever known had offered some form of help. Whether that be a cooked meal, a place to stay, clothes, furniture, money or anything that they could possibly think of, they were offering it to us. However if you were to ask me what I needed in the first couple of days after the fires, I don’t think I could tell you. I can’t remember a lot to be honest. We had just lost our family home and were lucky to escape with our lives. 

The Pearce family home

On Sunday the 8th of February, we saw what was left of our home for the first time. We sifted through the rubble, finding bits and pieces of the memories of the 25 years that my parents had lived in that home. We travelled to the centre of town in Kinglake to be reunited with friends, neighbours and members of our community who we didn’t know were dead or alive. We discovered what we had lost and who we had lost. It wasn’t until that afternoon that those with cars and fuel could be evacuated from the town via an escorted convoy. With that convoy came a journey through the fire ravaged streets of our town, around burnt out cars and perished livestock and finally making it to my sisters home in a neighbouring suburb with little more than the car we arrived in and the clothes on our backs.

The Kinglake/St Andrews Road

Everything from then on is a bit of a haze. We barely ate, despite the mountain of home cooked food delivered to my sister’s house. We barely slept. We cried. But in the first few days, it was hard to fathom what we needed or where to start. I know what I felt was really important was to find items that felt like me. We had so many generously donated items but all I wanted was to buy a fresh pair of underwear and set of clothes in my size and in my style because I had nothing that was my own. We had lost our house but also our sense of home. That sense of familiarity you get from a home. We were so fortunate that services had provided vouchers and grants to us that allowed us to get to the shops and buy what we needed to slowly build our lives again, starting from a fresh pair of undies. 

My parents found us a rental close to my school in a short amount of time. We were one of the lucky ones. It was competitive as many families were trying to find rentals close to the local schools to try and give their children some sense of normalcy. I think we had one night on a camping mattress on the floor of the empty rental before my now family-in-law turned up with trailer loads of furniture and filled the house. That’s the moment when we needed someone to show up with furniture and we were so lucky we had them. As we were in a rental away from Kinglake, we were then away from all of the services based in the fire affected zone. This meant that we didn’t always know what was available to us as we weren’t there. It was tough to feel disconnected. The benefit concerts, the celebrity visits, the companies who donated services and goods to the area were largely things we missed out on as we were not in a position to be back in the area at the time. That’s not to say they weren’t valued and so worthwhile for those who were able to remain in the area but for families such as ours who no longer had a home in the area, it was not something that we could benefit from. 

Prior to the fires, I was working my first job at the local bakery. Once we lost the house and relocated, I wasn’t able to continue working. Thanks to government and charitable support, we were financially stable. However, the bakery itself found itself quite understaffed having many of the staff impacted by the fires. In the recovery effort, many generous Victorians wanted to support the area by visiting to support local business. This was great for profit, however I know from friends working at the time and from when I returned when our family rebuilt, this came with some challenges. The staff and locals were already under enormous stress having experienced significant trauma whilst continuing to run a business in a town overrun with services and now with the addition of tourists. They would often be overworked and low on stock. The other challenge was that many tourists used local business as an information desk at their point of sale. Our staff were asked questions like ‘can you tell me where the street where the most burnt houses is? Or even worse, “where is that street where all of those people died?” The people who lost their lives were our friends, family, neighbours and at the very least, our regular customers. How the staff continued to serve a shop full of customers after a question like that shows the amount of resilience needed after this kind of disaster. 

What stands out to me the most from the memories following Black Saturday is all of the moments of kindness. My friends making me photo albums and throwing me a surprise birthday party, my teachers who showed me patience and compassion, my in-laws who fully furnished our rental and so many more moments, big and small. In my day to day world, I’m quite vocal about my political beliefs but right now, it doesn’t seem like the right time to be pushing an agenda or spreading hate. I know that when we lost our home, my priority wasn’t about who to blame. In the face of adversity, we see so many acts of kindness. I agree that there are leaders and companies in our country that could be doing more but there are so many people and companies that are doing so much good. I find myself getting frustrated at activists who I usually enjoy following that are using this opportunity to share hateful posts rather than concentrating on all of the ways that people are coming together. I hope that more people can use this to amplify messages of hope, kindness and generosity because I know that is what was helpful for me in our time of need.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s fundraising page to allow international donors to support the fire appeal. It has raised $5.1m as of 4/1/20

In saying this, I can’t tell you exactly what people need right now because it’s not my current reality. If I were to give you my best advice on how to support people impacted by the fires based on my experience, this is it:

  • Donate funds. The Red Cross, Salvos and Vinnies. The vouchers and the grants that we received were the most helpful as it meant we had choice and a chance to build our own sense of self again. 
  • Donate to Foodbank. They’ve been dropping off supplies to impacted communities and do a great job. Check their socials for donation details. 
  • When the time comes to donate items, if you can, donate new or near new items and the essentials to get started. Your grandma’s ornaments might feel homely to you but that’s because they’re yours. Candles and pot plants are not the first thing you need in your house when you move in. Pillows, doonas, mattresses, tellys, school supplies – all those things that don’t require much personal preference and are urgently needed are perfect. Remember it takes time for people to find a rental and rebuild homes, these things might not be needed for a while.
  • If you decide when the time comes, that you would like to go into the impacted towns to support local business, firstly good on you for keeping people in mind after the fires have left the news cycle. Secondly, Please show compassion and patience. The staff have likely experienced recent trauma, are taking extra shifts to cover those who have been forced to leave and they’re just doing their best. If all they have left in the shop is a Mars Bar, buy the Mars Bar and give them a big smile. Don’t ask them for a tourist map of fire destruction. 
  • If you decide to volunteer in the affected areas, good on you, you legend. Remember us small town folk aren’t used to such a mass operation and it can be overwhelming to have so many strangers around, especially given the circumstances. Try to remember that you’re a guest in the town, regardless of the good work you’re doing and that people might be protective over their home and their experience. 
  • Amplify kindness. Old mate Dumbledore said “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” There’s a time for naming and shaming, in my opinion, it’s not now. 
  • Lastly, I say this with love and kindness – just because your intentions to help are good, it doesn’t mean that they are right. Listen deeply and with empathy. We all want to do something but make that something count when it is needed and it is valued. Please don’t get angry at a charity or service when they don’t need your old couch or can’t take you as a volunteer. The recovery takes time and these communities will need us for a while to come. There will be something you can do when the time is right so stay in it for the long game. 

This is my reflection on the support we received and our recovery from the fires. This might not be the same for people today nor it might not represent the views of people who lost their homes or more during the Black Saturday fires. However, I hope it’s helpful to give a little bit of understanding for those who are removed as to what it might be like for those who have just lost everything or unfortunately, are about to.

Thank you for caring, even though you don’t have to. Aren’t humans wonderful?

51 thoughts on “Recovering From a Bushfire: My Experience

  1. I loved reading your blog, l could relate to so much regarding the small business in Kinglake as l was the proud owner of a very successful hairdressing salon started with 2 second hand mirrors and one basin hiring local people and young teenagers who completed work experience to hairdressing apprenticeships. Business was great, stable and supported my husband and four young kids for four years before Black Saturday. I closed my door for the last time 13months later, but not before we tried in vain to keep it going we were drowning financially and emotionally.

    In the first three months post fires l had the exact same questions coming from tourists mouths but the one comment of “what’s all the hype about up here it doesn’t look that bad”. Seriously???, also another visitor to the town stated “well l donated to the appeal so l should get a royal tour around the badly burnt bits??” I struggled with this alot post fires. I am not pigeonholing all of the kind, compassionate people who donated but my advise for people who do donate is a donation is something selfless you do with nothing in return not as tool to get something back in return except to know you have helped people in a devastating situation.
    I also wanted to state that so much more needed to be done for small businesses in these affected towns not immediately but 6 to 12 months down the track.

    Whether they lost the business and have to build from scratch to business that are still standing and are trying to be there for there community and move forward there was no help for them. Around 95% of business in Kinglake were are owned and ran by family’s who live in the community with there families like l did trying to claw back and stay open following the tragedy that affecting our town.
    So from my experience the good samaritan who what to help the community approach the local businesses the butcher, bakery, hairdresser, and offer your time or ask what will help keep your business afloat in the long run because once the smoke settles and families return to there new built homes six, nine or even 12months down the track these businesses will be gone either shut down like mine was or if you were lucky to sell your business new people unknown to the community who were given grants by the government to open a new business when the actual people who went through the fires are left feeling as if they failed or have gone broke trying the stay open for there town were offered no assistance.
    I remember one day sitting in my salon one day and l had booking just not show up or call and cancelled this one day and l was sitting there scratching my head until l was told that hairdressers from Melbourne decided to donate there time and set up a makeshift salon at the local football club to do free haircuts. That was the first kick in the face as not only did l sponsor the footy club and had done for the past four years l open my salon for 2 days and had 8 hairdressers come in a do colors and cuts for free a few weeks after the fires to help those without water and electricity. I was not unset by the locals going and getting free haircuts but why not include the local business in the plan?? This is a similar situation for the bakery when donations were given to businesses off the mountain to supply meals and delivered to the community for another business off the mountain to benefit?? Where is the sense in that??
    I too say this with no blame on any particular volunteer, or donations that where made at the time but to highlight the fact that in a year or 2 down the track let’s not have the similar stories of these local peoples businesses being lost due to no support.

    Thanks for reading, and take care of each other, K.Hurst.

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    1. It was a pretty wild time and definitely a case misguided good intentions as you say in many cases. Hopefully given the experiences such as ours from Black Saturday there will be many less scenarios such as these! Thanks for sharing Kristy ❤️

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  2. I had the amazing opportunity to go to an area devastated by bushfire and help with the recovery effort. The hardest part was listening to their story but it was the most important part as it allowed them to get it out in the open. Only then could we ask or see what we could do to help.

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  3. Thank you for this personal and deep insight, it will go a long way towards helping people understand and make sense of what they’re experiencing – directly affected or activated bystanders wanting to help. The clarity and direction is just as important as the sentiment. I will share with my networks in the hope it helps at least one person. Stay safe

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  4. Thank you for sharing your story. No wonder you are one of Lauren’s friends. Your empathy for others certainly shines and as you say resilience is one of the most important things to master as you mature. Jenny Holden. (Veronica’s cousin)

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  5. Thanks. We were in Marysville and you’ve captured the response really well… especially the bit about not asking staff about the deceased – incredible how many disaster tourists get obsessed with that. Yes humans on the whole are wonderful but we can also be very aggressive and territorial when in fear – we saw the best and worst of human behaviour. We learnt a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Maddie, you are a brave and beautiful human. I was deeply affected by the loss of your community and saw the devastation and trauma that has rippled through beautiful families across the decade in the work I do within mental health.. To emphasise kindness and patience in our support is paramount. It is such a long game, with always moving targets. This will be a tough time for you also. much love x

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  7. This made me cry! My heart breaks for your beautiful country. I will be making my first visit there next month. I’ve waited 40 years for this trip and it breaks my heart and scares me as well, as to what I will be arriving to. Thank you for opening my eyes. As a tourist I want to respect and honor those who are grieving such devastation. Though I don’t believe I will be in the actual areas of the fires (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth) I know I may meet people who have been affected. Thank you for sharing and opening our eyes.

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  8. Thank you for this. Most helpful advice I’ve seen in this unfolding disaster. Thankyou for sharing such wisdom and showing such resilience in what must be an especially difficult time for you and your community. You summed up what I’ve been trying to tell people all week in a far more poignant way. Take care and thankyou for bravely sharing your experience.

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  9. Wow. What an incredible human you are. There are so many in the community feeling helpless and wanting to assist but knowing how. How in a practical & physical sense, but more importantly, in the best way for those impacted. Many are fortunate enough to have never experienced the impact of any disaster or loss, first hand in any capacity. Sharing your story in a way that allows others to experience the personal journey of a bushfire survivor in the way you have is incredible !

    I hope this reaches far and wide Maddy, because this is the recipe for the support process in the rehabilitation of these devastating fires. Moreover, the blame and political stances being projected. Now is simply not the time as the country is still suffering.

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  10. Spot on ! We also lost many friends and our house in Kinglake West on Black Saturday and I could not have put into words more perfectly than you have how it felt. It is horrendous watching all our fellow Australians going through the same thing with these fires and my heart aches for them. Take Maddies advise and let us see only the beautiful, empathetic and generous Australian spirit shine.

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  11. I’m wondering if, once things settle down, the small businesses could have gift cards printed so that those who want to help could buy them and give to local Vinnies etc to distribute as required to fire affected families? That way, local people and businesses are being helped in a practical way. I would happily buy them so that locals can spend as they wish. Pretty sure that there’d be graphic artists and printers happy to contribute to the process.
    Thanks for your blog which was so informative. Best wishes.

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    1. Lovely idea Deidre. Definitely something to keep in mind over the coming weeks when people impacted are starting to find their way into accomodation and figure out what they need. Vinnies will definitely be on the ground helping – you could reach out to them if you decide to take on coordination of the idea! Good on you 👏❤️❤️❤️

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  12. This is about the most practical thing I have read and so thoughtfully written.
    Thank you for opening your heart and experiences to people far and wide – and the sensitivity with which you have done that. I am sure it will help many people to both support more appropriately and perhaps as something those affected by the fires can point people to when explaining is hard.

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  13. Thank you to you (and Kirsty Hurst in her reply) for sharing this amazing and personal insight into what it is like to, sadly, be caught up in such a devestating disaster. Many of us are fortunate enough (so far anyway) never to have had to experience something like this, but feel huge empathy, and would really like to help in some way. This really gives us fantatic ideas on how to help in practical, useful ways. Beautifully written. Best wishes to you.

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  14. I’ve been watching in shock from the UK, all that Australia is going through. The devastation to the communities and loss of animals and their habitats is, unless you are in the thick of it, is unfathomable. I only came across your post through Kate sharing it. I was fortunate enough to get know her over the years she spent in London. I also have friends in Sydney. Your words read like a beacon through the haze, highlighting what is truly important and I sincerely hope that those who read this, follow the advice who is now living this twice over. I’m so sorry 😦 . We feel so hopeless from afar, aside from sending donations, all we can do is pray for rain and that the end is soon in sight. Much love x x

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  15. Hi Madeleine. Thank you so much for such a great insight from someone who has walked the walk before. A couple of farmers over here in NZ have come up with an idea of hosting Australian farmers who have lost everything.

    Check out the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ANZACFarmingSpirit/). You can contact me at nzbushfireaccommodation@gmail.com if you’d like. We’ve had a huge response and it hasn’t even been up for 4 days yet.

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  16. Dear Maddie, thank you for sharing your story, it will help lots of people to understand what is needed. Everything you wrote resonated with me, as one on the fringes of Kinglake who lost loved ones and whose business and livelihood was significantly impacted. I still bristle when asked “were you impacted/affected by the fires?” Because a simple “yes” seems to require a qualifying statement or explanation, which I still can’t find the words for, 11 years on. All my love to you and thank you 🙏 💚xx

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  17. Beautifully written. after Black Saturday i was fortunate to be able to have time to volunteer sorting donated goods at one of the relief centres in rowville. sorting was def required as we could not believe some of the crap people donated (literally broken or falling apart stuff or worse with holes in it!) we made sure nothing broken or dirty got through and it was only boxed up if it was either brand new or 99% okay. All the other crap went straight to the skips. Our brief was to make sure no crappy shit (donated by well meaning people??) went to those people already in a traumatised state.
    sendin g love and deepest sympathies to the victims of these terrible current fires and remembering those victims of Black saturday who still suffer today. God bless….

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  18. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, I can relate to a lot of what you said, I felt as though you were talking about my experience as we lost our home in Marysville on Black Saturday. I too have been trying to think about what was needed in the immediate aftermath, and I think you expressed it perfectly. A well written article and would you mind if I share it too. I hope you are doing ok, as I know seeing all the images and posts can trigger some traumatic memories.
    Blessings.❤

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    1. Alison, thank you so much for your kind comments. It’s nice to know that I have been able to articulate some part of other people’s experiences as well. Please feel few to share. Take care ❤️❤️❤️

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  19. Thank you Maddie for sharing your experiences- they have have really brought home to me the reality of the situation! I agree now is not the time for the blame game but rather for compassion,understanding and support. With Kristy’s comments too we can better grasp how to help now and importantly in the future too! Katherine

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  20. You have put into words EXACTLY what I am feeling. I lost my family home to a bushfire in 1994. I was 19yrs old.
    Thank you for being courageous and sharing what is so personal and very close to our hearts right now ❤️

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  21. Yes I agree with a lot of what you are saying – people are so overwhelmingly generous – especially strangers – relatives 🖓- although money is greatly needed & appreciated it’s embarrasing to take it from anyone physically but you have to prove hardship & jump through hoops to get any from government & charities – the candles & plants & grandma’s ornaments (not everyone affected ate young) are wonderful to create new memories but more useful items are better – if people are insured they will get an emergency payment within days if they contact their insurer – it will take time to recover but they will but they will never forget & I agree with the view – dont criticise Scott Morrison – i didnt blame anyone else even the farmer who accidently caused the fire – there is so much more I could say but would be not much help to most – overall people were very helpful with the exception of a few hurtful comments 😔❤

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  22. Thank you Maddie for your amazing story. My friends and neighbours lost their house in Sampson Flat Bushfire 5 years ago, January 2015. They told me about your article, so I looked it up. Is it ok to share, please?
    Take care during these traumatic times that bring back the memories. It can also be a time of healing as you have opened up your heart. A big hug to you.xo

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  23. From tragedy comes a heart of compassion, to share your story for the benefit of those suffering today. A great kindness, and exceptionally well written. You are to be commended. ❤️

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