Australian history

Charred hearts and incinerated souls

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Only tears of angels can extinguish these flames, bathe charred hearts and our incinerated souls.

We have never seen such apocalyptic fire in Victoria, demonic flailings lashed by hellfire winds, delivering an Armageddon well prophesied upon a sunburnt country already dying of thirst.

Embers, like anger, still smoulder. Nature's mighty force is one thing.

When she is aided and abetted by human accomplices, then she is seduced into believing she is invincible. C'mon baby, light my fire. The impotent goading the omnipotent. Make no mistake, arsonists are terrorists, turning our beloved land into valleys of death and destruction.

As we haul the twisted corpses of our brothers and sisters from their still warm tombs  in scenes reminiscent of another kind of war zone, we must not capitulate to the despair, the horror and the sadness we now feel.

As we count and bury our dead, the undead amongst us must embrace the dying and the injured.

As we smell the burnt flesh of the wounded, the smoke is smeared as strong as paint upon our landscape and upon our heartscape.

We salute our mighty fireys, fire-fighters and rescue workers. And brave neighbours and friends and family members who risked all to save and help others.  Some forfeiting their own lives, and even loved ones and property as they toiled.

All are heroes, whether in the uniform of the CFA or the Salvos; whether they bear the Jaws of Life or administer healing cups of tea, offer hugs, words of encouragement or talk gently to us of a happier future far from today's nightmare.

As we begin to bulldoze the corpses of livestock and animals trapped in stables, cages, pens, that we left behind, or bury pets that died with their owners, and as we put down hundreds of half-burned, bloated, blinded and near dead creatures with half-beating hearts; eyes crazed white with fear and pain — I can promise there is a guilt of the human survivor even in this; that we did not, could not, protect those trusting creatures in our care.

We must all help in whatever way we can and even if we don't have money to spare, we can lend a hand in so many other ways, either on an individual basis or with community working bees.

So often, in the heat of disaster, we inundate crisis centres with support. But it is in those lonelier days into the future, when the blistering subsides and the emotional regrowth starts to show that we need to be there for those of us forever scarred by these fires.

Tasmanians know this only too well. Black Tuesday 1967 is like a welt upon the memory of those of us who lived through it. We lost 62 of our own during that maelstrom, when the air turned into a blood-red solid element. Like Icarus, our State was hurtling towards the sun.

About 900 of us suffered burns and injury, some forever disfigured, disabled, deformed and reformed by the fire, its heat reforging our molten skin like play dough. This too, too solid flesh did melt.

More than 7,000 Taswegians found themselves homeless. My own family amongst them.

In a bizarre co-incidence, both Black Tuesday and Victoria's fires happened in February – and exploded on the same date – the 7th — 42 years to the day!

The post traumatic impact of tragedy leaves a different imprint on us all. It manifests in different ways. On different days. Even decades later.

It is always with us. It becomes part of our emotional ringbarking. One is not even conscious of it. But it is a psycholgical stigmata that reappears during these times of stress and particularly when there are similar recurrences.

The embrace of family, friends, schoolmates, and the kindness of strangers becomes   a parliament of healing and support; a Loving Cup, a shared humanity in which we find comfort in one another.

You find such precious jewels amongst the ashes of razed houses and dreams. You learn from bitter experience these are the truest. They are to be polished and cherished and placed like runes in a safe place in your heart.

And they do sustain you and remind you of the goodness in the hearts of others. And you find yourself fingering them in moments of insecurity and fear. In such places as Ethiopia, Iraq, Kuwait, I have done this to calm myself.

It is knowing you are not alone in such horrendous difficulties that can salve wounds and the hurt. No amount of anaesthesia will numb the emotional pain.

Experiencing these horrors gives us empathy with those who daily live with the nightmare of war and bombs, disease and starvation. It brings us a little closer to the 800,000 human beings who were disembowelled, mutilated and hacked to death by their own species in Rwanda.

None of us is immune from tragedy. Not even those of us who report the news, good or bad. Channel 9's famous newsreader Brian Naylor and his wife Moiree are you or I on another day, another place.

I covered the Ash Wednesday fires for the now defunct Melbourne Herald – now merged into the Herald Sun, sister paper to The Mercury – where I did my wonderful and happy cadetship and covered everything from Courts to Shipping.

At the time of Black Tuesday, our Dad was a sub-editor on The Mercury – most of us kids were still at school. Dad's workmates and families were fantastic to us.  Everyone was.  People lent us their homes and lent us their hearts.

Our next door neighbour Fred Scheppein and his beloved wife Pat (who has since died) bought our block and told Mum and Dad, if ever they wanted to rebuild, it was theirs. Just like that. We never did rebuild. But thank you Fred and Pat.

I do believe that every death diminishes us all. In Victoria, the number of deaths is increasing. The bell has yet to toll for others.

Somewhere there is the person/or persons responsible for some of this bloody murder most foul. Getting their rocks off as they monitor the international media response to their cowardly deeds. Perhaps filming on their mobile phone for a Youtube boast.

The same Queen who sent Dame Elisabeth Murdoch congratulations for her 100th Birthday, also sent her condolences to Victorians who lost loved ones.

The arsonist (s) would pin this on a chest like a badge of dishonour. But beware, forensic teams have already moved in to analyse your handiwork.

Anyone who has smelled the burning flesh of humans never forgets it. Those of us who have to identify corpses will never forget it. To see your loved one(s) and animals grotesquely disfigured by fire is a spectre that haunts one forever.

Imagine, too, the psychological impact upon those who find the bodies and the paramedics, police, medical and Defence and other teams now working to save us and mend us.

One thing I do know, is that the human spirit seems to be greater than the adversity that challenges it.

We can overcome tragedy and we can rebuild. We can rebuild our lives and we can rebuild property and we can rebuild broken hearts and broken spirits. We have before and we will again.

But we should not be embarrassed or afraid of seeking psychological help and de-briefing counselling.

I hope the fires are extinguished by St Valentine's Day; more an act of mercy than Love.

I hope that the tears of angels fall like rain on the smouldering earth about us to put out the fires that rage on the land and in our hearts. And that we use these tears to bathe wounds and cleanse us from the smoke, in our throats and in our eyes.

Life goes on. Not always in the same direction as originally planned; often with an increased faith in humanity and a greater sense of community.

How true it is, that tragedy often brings out the best in people; so it's there — inherent. The Phoenix is already risen, borne aloft by the collective indomitable human spirit.

The murderous person(s) who set the torch that ignited this current inferno also lit a candle to a shared humanity and turned a nation into a family.

(Tess Lawrence’s family has been burned out twice — and lost everything on both occasions. Once in political riots — and once in bushfires. She still grieves and cries about the family's five beloved dogs who died in these fires.)

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