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Black Saturday from afar

A year after Black Saturday, upstart editor Tom Cowie recalls how he learned about the ordeal those close to him suffered in the fires while he himself was in South America.

If the town of Chuy, on the Uruguayan/Brazilian border, is renowned for anything, it is duty free shopping.

Walking its unsealed boulevard of ‘free shops’, it would seem entirely appropriate if Chuy’s streets were paved with its livelihood; cigarettes, liquor and pirated DVDs.

It is a town of contrasts and, as a result, acts as a microcosm for South America as a whole. It is in Chuy where you can find $300 Ray Ban sunglasses on sale amongst abject poverty.

It is also in the middle of nowhere and, needless to say, foreigners rarely go there. Lonely Planet warns people not to unless they are on their way to Brazil.

Perhaps it was apt that I was stuck in an internet café in this tiny go-between of a town on February 8, 2009. I was a long way from home on the day after Black Saturday, the worst natural disaster Australia has ever experienced.

On that particular day, the first thing I did was check my emails in the hope of receiving a message from my girlfriend.

I then loaded up The Age Online to get a feel for the latest news from back home. I had been away for three months and the first pangs of homesickness were beginning to set in.

When the site eventually loaded, my heart skipped a beat. Headlines filled the dusty screen, telling me that areas to the north of Melbourne were ablaze.

The fires were burning through Kinglake, Strathewan and Whittlesea, towns that were very familiar to me and where some of my friends lived. Worryingly, the fires were also surging towards Doreen, the town where my family lived and where I had grown up and gone to school.

Upon further investigation, it felt like the whole state was on fire. My dad’s house was under threat in Bendigo and my girlfriend’s parent’s property in Horsham was also close to another front.

An intense sensation of helplessness overcame me and I very nearly broke down. My family had always thought bushfires were a distinct possibility, but they were never considered a real threat.

We didn’t live in the bush, we lived on the urban fringe. We were right next to an ever-expanding suburbia, a development that, while awful on other levels, gave us a feeling of comfort towards bushfire.

In a panic, I rushed to the CFA website. Amongst the chaos, they were reporting a grass fire on Bridge Inn Road in Doreen. My school was on that road, and it was only three kilometres from my house.

The news outlets were reporting it as a day of unprecedented fire conditions. It was 45 degrees, with a hellish northerly blowing in excess of one hundred kilometres per hour.

I wanted more information, but there was none. A sense of misinformation, helplessness and guilt overwhelmed me.

I suddenly felt like I should have been there – in Melbourne – helping my family and friends. I could have helped them fight the fire, or at least provide support. Instead I was lazily enjoying myself on a four-month holiday.

Shamefully, I had even asked my parents for money two days before. They were now facing a real threat and I was grubbing for extra spending money.

In a heady mix of emotion and blame, even my self-pity made me angry, as if it were somehow disrespecting the people fighting for their lives back home.

The only way to find out more was to call home, a task made difficult by my refusal to take a phone on holiday and a lack of facilities in the small frontier town.

It took until much later that evening to get in contact. However, despite the scratchy line back home, I was able to ascertain that everyone was OK. My mother reassured me that they were fine. However, she also told me more of the scale of the destruction.

She told me that many people had died, people that we knew. She explained that properties were gone and it was impossible to say how extensive the damage was.

When telling me about the number of dead animals, my mother – an avid horse-lover – struggled to control her emotions. I told her I felt helpless, that I felt ashamed to be where I was and what I was doing.

“Don’t worry about us, have a good time,” she told me. “We’ll be fine.”

In the time after that terrible day, the bushfires were all over international news services. It felt like everyone that I met had heard about the catastrophe and expressed their sympathies. When I told them how close I lived to the affected area, they were shocked.

Three weeks later, I returned home where my mother greeted me at the airport. Almost immediately she began to tell stories that she had been told. There were horrific stories of death and there were amazing stories of survival.

I learned that my English teacher had died in the fire and that friends of friends had also perished. In contrast, friends of mine had heroically saved their house in Strathewan.

I had seen the whole thing unfold from afar, like it was a scene from a movie. It didn’t feel as real to me as it did other people.

My friends and family lived through the horror of that day, they saw it, they smelt it. Over a short period of time, it appeared to me that they had familiarised themselves with something impossible to understand.

By not being in Melbourne on that day, I avoided a harrowing experience. Yet I still feel a twinge of shame for how easily I escaped.

However, I’m sure the people closely affected by February 7 would trade anything to have been in my shoes.

In fact, a small border town half a world away on the Uruguayan/Brazilian border would have probably done quite nicely.

On this one year anniversary of the terrible Black Saturday bushfires I would like to extend my sympathies to all those affected by the events of February 7, 2009.

As the lives of survivors are rebuilt, the memories of those who lost theirs will live on.

Tom Cowie is the editor of upstart.

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