Over the last few days, Perth lost 72 homes to fires (with significant damage to 30 more). Some evacuees told me of the moment they knew they had to leave at very little notice. What could they grab? They decided to leave everything – it wasn’t important as long as they had each other. As it happens, they were abler to return to their home which was unscathed. What freedom, however, to be so unattached to material things, even those which must carry some significance. What freedom to travel through the world so lightly.
Fire is one of the banes of this country. The nature of our landscape and weather patterns provides an ogoing banquet of fuel for this red marauding beast. Nevertheless, we live with it and many, over time, have died with it. It has ever been in the background of my awareness. As a kid I most enjoyed holidays with family in the Adelaide Hills. You could see the escarpment from our house down on the plain. Scarcely a year went by when you could not be aware of the smoke on the horizon and we would wonder if the fires were “anywhere near Uncle Ron’s place.” I recall leading a youth camp where fire from an exploding kerosene fridge leveled the kitchen and main hall in five minutes flat. Fate or fortune or providence had us all down at the river at the time. One bushfire we scarcely noticed was the one razing the mountain behind the Ainslie manse the day we brought our infant son home. We were somewhat preoccupied that day. The years we lived in Bridgewater – again in the Adelaide hills – had us well tuned into the fire season with our action plans ready to go if needed. My sister’s place a few ridges away came dangerously close to being burnt out one year.
The Victorian fires this weekend have a strange “here we go again” feel. Amongst the angst and the despair that is in the air, even on the West Coast that is as far from the fires as you can get on this big island, there is a sense of resignation. You can fight nature, but you can’t master it. One thing you can do is to tap into the community spirit that rises above the devastation and loss and seeks practical ways to give muscle to hope. Not Pollyanna “everything’s going to turn out alright” hope – but the kind that grants a due and respectful acknowledgemt to the grieving process that must yet unfold, a sifting of memories from which can be extracted the values and inspiration that have survived, and using these as building blocks for a new thing.
We’ve had a lot of experience in this land of doing just that. There’s no reason why it won’t happen again in the months and years ahead for the communities destroyed in the weekend’s fires.