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.
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.
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.
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?