Almost everyone has a story about the 2003 bushfires and I have a few myself. I thought I’d share a couple with you to get a thread of stories going to add to the history of that horrible day, some 14 years on.
I reckon the memories are as fresh as the day itself.
I was a mere backbencher in January 2003 and the week before had taken my father to Malaysia as a treat for his 75th birthday. We were due to return on 19 January. He suffered greatly from emphysema and lived in a two-bed unit in Duffy. His wife was visiting friends elsewhere in Canberra when the disaster struck. Had he been in his home he would have perished from smoke inhalation. As it turned out, the house next door was lost and his singed.
We returned on the Sunday morning and I rushed home after arranging for Dad to go to my brother’s house in Jerrabomberra. When I got home I found that apart form a bit of singeing, our place in Wanniassa was OK, thanks to the quick thinking of the child bride.
I was really concerned for my constituents and went straight over to Kambah and got there around 11 or so. The resilience of the people who suffered still rocks me.
I stood ankle deep in warm ashes in ruins on Colquhoun Street in the Mt Taylor Estate and held a woman as she sobbed. Tears flooded. She was a single French lady with no insurance and only the clothes she stood up in. What could I do? Promising to alert the relief authorities, I moved on to a friend’s house in Ammon Place. He was fine but directed me to his friends Greg and Jo up the street.
Here was the same story. Ashes still smouldering. A garden shed miraculously saved by the neighbour spraying water on it because his hose wouldn’t reach Greg and Jo’s house. He felt a futility but still needed to do something.
Greg leant on his car with his head in his hands, shaking with disbelief. Jo was wandering around the ruins. I spoke to her and her strength and resilience was incredible. When it was clear that they had to evacuate, they put the kids in the car with as much as they could carry and looked for their three little dogs. Only one could be found. And so, they took off for their lives.
When I turned up, Jo told me her story. She pointed to the red and yellow plastic trike in the midst of the ashes. Unscathed! She told me that one of the two lost dogs had just bolted once let out and they haven’t seen him since. But inside the shed that the neighbour saved was the third little dog. Had the neighbour not watered the shed, the dog would have perished. When they looked inside to see what had been saved, out he ran to be greeted with tears from Greg and Jo.
She asked me how I liked her rose garden. She said it took a lot of effort to grow black roses and chuckled to herself. Taking me by the hand, she led me to the water meter. She said “you just have to see this for yourself, cos if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me”. When the fire raged over their property, the intense heat sucked all of the moisture from their lawn and created a hole around the pipes leading to the meter. Inside that hole, a fragment of a magazine had drifted and lay face up. I could see in large font that what was written on it was “Life Sucks!” Again, Jo chuckled to herself.
So impressed was I that I nominated her for a position on the disaster relief authority and she served us well. Three weeks later, I saw her and asked how she was and given that she had arranged relief for so many, was there anything she needed? She asked for some new underwear. She had been so busy looking after everyone else, and doing hand washing nightly in temporary accommodation, she hadn’t sought relief for herself. How diminished did I feel in the presence of such a woman?
I ran into a mate of mine who also lived in Kambah albeit another part of the suburb. As the fire approached, he plugged his drainpipes, did all the right things, and then hooked up his trailer and rang another mate of ours and off they went to help those who were losing everything, doing anything and everything they could, including fighting spot fires. Everyday heroes doing everyday heroics.
The child bride had in fact, hopped onto our roof, place a sprinkler hose across the roofline and turned the water on. She watched as the fire approached and saw the burning embers cascade over our house, our home. I was still airborne and of absolutely no help to her at all. I married a heroine and a strong one at that.
As I wandered around the ruined parts of my electorate and spoke to people, I sensed a strength and a camaraderie and support for those who fought and lost, for those who had to rebuild from nothing with nothing. How I wished that I had been here! When I saw the headlines in Sydney Airport, I thought it was a joke until I read the details.
Many readers will have stories. I have just given a couple. Perhaps the healing can be assisted by the sharing of stories. As my late mother said once: “I see you are in pain. I can’t feel your pain because it is uniquely yours, but I have been in a similar situation and can share your pain for a half an hour if you want me to.”
Fourteen years on, some of our friends and some of our neighbours still grieve. Four lives lost, 500 homes lost, so many homes damaged extensively, so much heartache and despair.
I’m happy to share some of the pain, if you’ll let me. Tell your stories. Tell the stories that were not chronicled. Tell the personal stories which made us the community we are.