Two years ago, it was my town threatened by bushfires. It was my community losing homes, livestock, and family farms. Now, it feels as though half the country is burning, or has already burnt down.
The horrific and disastrous bushfires this summer have triggered so many feelings and memories. I remember how gut-wrenchingly awful it was then, and cannot comprehend the exponential scale of the current catastrophe my country is experiencing.
Like then, I have friends who have lost everything except the few things they managed to take with them as they evacuated. My heart breaks for them, but I am so incredibly thankful they got out when they did.
I feel so useless. It seems as much as one donates and supports and cries and prays for an end to the fires, it never feels like enough.
Add a few layers of grief, empathy, and occasional despair, and you get something of an idea about how many Australians are feeling at this point.
I wrote this poem, and a number of others, in the aftermath of the St Patrick’s Day fires of 2018. It seems an appropriate poem to post at a point where a large proportion of eastern Australia is either on fire, has burnt, or is blanketed in acrid smoke.
It is a recollection of an actual conversation among locals in my town back in March 2018, and bears witness to the resilience and the empathy of Australians in the face of adversity.
This poem is included in ‘Smoke and Shadows’. All profits from the sale of this book between January 1 and June 30 are being donated to ongoing bushfire relief.
Phoenix Project is a new and very exciting series of community events coming to my home town of Cobden, Victoria.
Phoenix Project really is the perfect name. Almost a year ago, Cobden, Camperdown, Terang, and much of the surrounding area was either destroyed or threatened by bushfires. Homes and livestock were lost – but miraculously, no lives. Our town, and those others nearby, emerged covered in soot and smelling of smoke, but determined to recover and keep on going as we always have done before.
That’s something I’ve had to do in my own life, too. I’ve been through some pretty tough seasons when it felt like my life was burning down around me. Yet I’ve emerged, covered in soot, and smelling of smoke and… you get the idea. As I observed last night, I’m a bit of a phoenix myself.
There’s no doubt the fires were an absolutely awful experience for everyone involved. But we got through it.
And those hard times in my life – I’ve come out braver and stronger than I’ve ever been. Well – mentally and emotionally, at least. My spine would tell you a different story.
I was very privileged to be one of the featured artists on the opening night of The Phoenix Project, alongside outstanding blues musician Alister Turril and Josh and Yas, spoken word artists from lowercase poetry in Geelong.
I shared some of the poems from ‘Smoke and Shadows’ that I wrote during and after the St Patrick’s Day fires, followed by some of my fantasy style poems because I didn’t want my bracket to be too heavy or confronting for a largely local audience.
The poems I shared all focused one way or another on the idea of resilience, and getting through the trials of life stronger and wiser than on the way in.
It was a great night. The music was cool, the poetry was powerful and thought-provoking, and the tone of the evening was 100% positive.
Phoenix Project continues this weekend with a great lineup of musicians and artists to feed the soul of everyone who comes along.
On Friday afternoon when I left town for a family wedding a couple of hours’ drive away, my greatest concern was that my father wouldn’t feel too lonely while we were away. When we left the wedding reception on Saturday night, and I checked my phone, my heart leapt into my throat as I began to realise what hell had unleashed back at home.
It is late in the season for fires, but there has been very little rain and the region has been tinder dry. Hot and very windy weather conditions created the opportunity for fire to take hold and spread rapidly through both farmland and natural bush.
One outbreak led to another, and another, and then another. My town, and those nearby, were experiencing the greatest crisis in decades. Surrounded by a ring of fire, people watched, worried, and sought refuge in the middle of town.
Social media posts showed what locals could see from their yards or where they had been driving. A friend who lives nearby posted photos of what she could see – and it was terrifying.
The emergency services website showed incidents all across the region, one after the other, spreading in a grim pattern of danger and destruction.
Roads were closed. Authorities forbade people from driving into the area. The situation was officially described as catastrophic. And my 86 year old father was at home on his own. Nausea swept over me as I struggled not only with fear, but also with feelings of absolute uselessness: there was absolutely nothing I could do.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much. The radio stations weren’t forthcoming with updates until after 3am, so I turned to social media for information. With the aid of Facebook, I consulted with neighbours and made sure that our uncle had taken steps to make sure Dad was okay. I tried to call, but was unable to make contact. In the end, I just had to trust that things at home were as under control as they could be.
The fires continued to burn and spread throughout the night and the following day. As people’s stories of loss and devastation were told, offers of help were made and communities rallied, even while the fires still raged. There is no doubt about Aussies – they know how to help a mate, and they don’t hesitate to step in where needed.
Even late into the afternoon, the roads to home were all still closed, so we made our way back to a neighbouring town to wait until we could get home. One road opened at 5.50pm; we only needed one road, so we headed home. We knew that even though the road was open, authorities didn’t want people just driving into the area without good reason, but my dad was a very good reason to be making the trip.
We were very glad to find that Dad was fine, our home was safe, and the town itself was untouched except for smoke. Our local football oval was filled with emergency service manpower and vehicles from other places. They had come to help fight the fires and provide relief to the local crews, many of whom are volunteers, who had been working for many long hours to defend and protect people, properties and towns.
Fifteen minutes after returning home, a succession of five fire trucks went zooming down our no-through road, and my heart was in my throat again. Whatever had them rushing out had to be close, as there’s only about two kilometres of road past our place before the road ends. Within half an hour they had sorted the issue and came trundling back. My neighbours and I applauded them, gave them the thumbs up, and cheered them to show our gratitude for their quick response. They waved back and returned the thumbs up, their smiles letting us know that they understood and were thankful for our response, too.
Not long after that, new plumes of smoke not too far away indicated that there were new fires springing up. I could hear the sirens as they rushed out of town to meet the new emergencies, and reminded myself that the crisis wasn’t over just because my immediate surroundings were relatively safe.
Thick smoke once again settled over the town. We took encouragement from the fact that warnings were downgraded to critical from catastrophic, and the symbols on the emergency services’ online fire map gradually began to change from red to orange.
Incredibly, no human lives have been lost and very few serious injuries have been suffered. This is testament to the dedication, hard work and training of our first responders, particularly our firefighters and State Emergency Service volunteers.
Despite the smoke in the air and the knowledge that the crisis wasn’t over yet, I slept so much better last night knowing that we were being protected by hundreds of committed and able firefighters, first responders, police, and support crews. It is not possible to adequately put into words how thankful we all are for the job they’ve done and continue to do.
This morning the pall of smoke blanketing our town was thick. It stings the eyes and the throat, and it smells. Yet that is the only discomfort I suffer, and for that I am incredibly thankful. What a blessing to be able to say that.
The waterbombers and helicopters are flying overhead, and the work to control and extinguish these fires continues. People who are much, much braver than I are working in difficult and dangerous conditions, and for that we are all incredibly thankful.
The warnings for my town have been downgraded to Watch and Act but others are still in danger. We all have to remain vigilant.
Beyond that, we all have to care for each other.
People have lost homes, or farms, or herds… or all of that.
Our local community in the southwest of Victoria has been shaken and found strong, supportive and caring – and now, we must continue that by caring for those who have lost so much.
I have no doubt that Cobden will ace that – we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, we’re incredibly blessed to live in Cobden. It’s a great community, and I’m thankful that it has passed this most recent test.