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.
Here, in Perth, we have lost up to thirty five homes over 12 hours and the fires are still out of control.
In the east, flood damage from storm and cyclone directly affecting thousands is still being assessed.
I noticed in news reports on the fires that people were being arrested for passing barricades to get to their threatened homes. I wonder if this is a manifestation of ‘disaster fatigue’ – that people are becoming blasé about personal safety because extreme natural events across the country have been part of our scene for about six weeks straight.
Anyhow, spare a thought for emergency workers – firefighters, police, rescuers – professional and volunteer – whose tasks stretch ahead to some unknown horizon at this stage.
Spare a prayer for those who have lost all but their lives and who must begin the process of reconstruction.
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.
Photos courtesy Brian Hills [click each to enlarge]
About 400 people gathered this afternoon to share in a process of community affirmation and support following the loss of the Wembley Downs Shopping Centre by fire seven days ago. A short simple ceremony invited each person to hold a rock and to imagine it absorbing sorrow through its heaviness, emanating thanks and memory through its warmth, and issuing hope as the crowd built a cairn under the remaining shopping centre signage. Chris Richards spoke on behalf of the owners expressing appreciation for community support and the desire to rebuild. Pharmacist Henry Gulev, for the tenants, thanked the community for expressions of care and concern. Councillor Elizabeth Re, on behalf of the Mayor and the City of Stirling, assured council assistance in working through the issues related to the rebirth of the site, including community consultation. The crowd, comprising business owners, shop staff, residents and neighbours adjourned to the adjacent church courtyard for refreshments provided by Indiret Singh of IGA, several neighbours and the church. The Rebuild Wembley Downs neighbourhood initiative collected messages and contact details from those wishing to help. Today saw a community rite of passage that led from desolation to expressions of hope.
The community is beginning to rally. There have been very positive expressions to the proposal outlined below and which is being distributed, as I write, throughout the district. Compassion for one another – neighbour for neighbour, customer for trader, trader for customer has been working it’s way through the community. The annual District Fair tomorrow will be a venue for much meeting and sharing, and Sunday’s event will cap it.
This weekend will see the beginning of a new chapter for our neighbourhood.
for an act of
HEALING and HOPE
this Sunday October 26
2.30 pm (Daylight Saving Time)
at the site of the Downs Shopping Centre.
Refreshments at Church of Christ hall after
Building hope for the future
Enquiries 9245 2593
These two signs hang on the fence surrounding the charred remains of our local shopping centre. One expresses the deep sorrow of the community, the other is a pointer to the community spirit that will carry us on. Both lament and hope need to find expression and it is my desire that we will find ways to appropriately process these as individuals and as a community. The Luita Street fair, though annual, is a timely event to remind us that while our loss is significant, we have not lost all. Our hope is also that the way will be clear for a swift re-establishment of the shopping precinct.
My church, just across the road from the devastation, is trying to think of ways of being useful. We can organise rides for shopping for those who have been dependent on shops they can walk to. We can become a distribution point for the local suburban paper. We can offer the listening ear for those who need to talk it through. But we are also open to ideas from the community. Tell us what you think, either by leaving a comment or by emailing.
Our local shops have been very handy to us – just across the road from where we live. More than that, however, they were the hub of the Wembley Downs community. As I write, the street is full of emergency vehicles while the ashes are hosed down. The crowds have dwindled now and the heartbreaking work of starting again lies ahead. These are tough times already, but the Wembley Downs community is resilient. The story of the fire is here.