Today marks the 5th anniversary of bushfires that devastated Victoria. They were dubbed Black Saturday, although I do often hesitate often to use that label. Some of the people I worked with in the bereavement support groups struggled with being labelled. They were already grieving in public, with media and public interest in the funerals of their families. Being labelled “Black Saturday” only made them feel even more on a pedestal. On the other hand, labelling something, like Black Saturday, or Bali recognises what it is, a defining moment for people. A point in history. It also becomes a bit of a secret society code word, for those involved. “You were involved in Black Saturday?” “So was I” “ah” comes the knowing nod. And with the knowing nod comes a lot of baggage; the fear, the terror, the overwhelming feelings, the exhaustion, the anger, the sadness, the laughter, the inappropriate humour, the frustration, the elation, the knowing. And this is for anyone who was involved; from those that lost family members, homes, pets, communities through to those that were there helping. All those feelings happen, sometimes all at once.
For me it was difficult to watch some of the decisions that were being made early on. Not long beforehand, I was leading recovery in the state and then I felt a lot like a spectator. Decisions, in the very early days were very centralised, many what were essentially operational decisions were being made by a cabinet sub-committee. As I commented to a friend of mine who is a senior fire officer, would you need to go to cabinet to deploy a helicopter. They were challenging days for all, and the intense media scrutiny made for cautious decisions. One thing that struck me was once the fire threat was over, the fire chiefs announced that it was all over, when it wasn’t. It was only the beginning. The media management for the fire response was excellent. It would have been great if a transition strategy was put in place so that the fire chiefs were replaced with the head of VBRRA, the Royal Commission, the chair of the Appeal Fund, who all had to have media presence. But this wasn’t coordinated, and you could see the fragmentation being, and the criticism begin. People began to be sceptical of “the system”, because the system couldn’t get it’s shit together. This, of course resolved as the various agencies settled into their roles. But it took months, and what people need though in those early uncertain days, is certainty. It is why I remain a strong advocate for existing arrangements being bolstered up, rather than new agencies (the pop up agency, as Deb Martindale described it).
I’m also realistic to realise, that with the scale of what was happening, were I to be in my role, I suspect I would have been swept aside, as heads of government departments, who previously had no interest at all in disaster recovery, became very focussed on the topic.
So after trying to influence some of these decisions (I still knew the back way in to my old work!), I decided that if was to contribute, then it would have to be meaningfully. And the only way I felt I could meaningfully contribute was with the “punters” . Hence my eventual involvement with the bereavement support groups, the Strathewen memorial, as well as being on the end of the phone to people who needed to bounce their own ideas of someone. I was extraordinarily privileged to be involved in both (and extraordinarily frightened!). Here I was, feeling like I was hanging on a precipice, one false move, and I’ll fall. This challenge was energising. It made me feel like I was contributing in a small way.
And we all contributed in many ways, from those that were guiding the big picture, through to those that may have been in the backroom somewhere, paying an invoice. For many people, the exhaustion that extends from that time still hasn’t resolved. Some of the people I speak to out in the community are saying they are just starting to emerge from the fog and can see a way ahead. I remember Rob Gordon saying to me once, it takes three times as long as you were in crisis mode to come down. For many of us, affected and helpers, we are still coming down.
I’m heading out to Strathewen later. This place has become a bit special for me, because of my involvement in a small part of their recovery. They do a very simple memorial service, and then people get together for a cup of tea and cake and chat. Simplicity is good.
So my thoughts go out to the people who have lost and found; family members, friends, colleagues, teammates, pets, communities, landscapes, places. And to those that were there with them. Then. And now
From the bard