Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Black Saturday: Eight Years On

For once, I'm not actually sure how to start this post. This is such a big thing that happened to me, but it was so long ago, it's hard to remember exactly how it went, and how I felt at the time. I'll start with what I do know: it was February 7th, 2009. I lived in a little town called Strathewen, which felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing there except trees, and hardly any people. 

I also remember being in a completely different mindset to my mother from the beginning. The entire time leading up to it, she wanted to stay. She kept saying not to pack up too much stuff because it'd just be more we'd have to unpack later on. I, on the other hand, being quite a negative person at the time, was expecting the worst. I always thought we'd had bad luck, and this day certainly didn't prove me wrong. 

I packed up all my photos and school things (I was a week into high school, I didn't want to lose all my new things), but I wasn't allowed to pack my trophies and ribbons because - once again - mum thought nothing was going to happen.

Eventually, something did happen. We were standing outside our house as the trees directly behind it caught on fire. We watched our house catch on fire - that was when I decided to stop looking. It was too late to leave; we were surrounded by trees, and soon they'd all be on fire. We had to stay. 

We lived right down the end of a long driveway, our landlords lived halfway down it, and at the beginning there was another house that belonged to a firefighter (I think - as I said, my memory is hazy). It was a designated safe house, and that's where my mum, her boyfriend, our dog and I stayed with a few other families.

To this day, I don't know how we are alive. We shouldn't be alive. I never really think about it that much, but forcing myself to relive the details is actually sending shivers down my spine. Everyone parked their cars on the front lawn of the safe house and huddled inside. I know we must have been there for hours, but I can only remember fragments of it all - like it being so unbelievably dark inside. 

I remember a girl, probably been 18 and 20, who was a complete stranger to me, hugging me like I was her child. Through the worst part of it, everyone had someone in their arms. When my mum told this story, she'd say that this was when everyone said goodbye to each other, but if they did, that was shielded from me. When I say "the worst part", I mean when the fire reached the house we were in, because we didn't escape the fire, we were surrounded by it.

The fire made its way around the back of the house, and at one point there was the loudest crashing sound I have ever heard. I thought the house was coming down. Someone later told me that the fire had briefly lifted part of the roof up, but I don't know if that is true as it was pitch black and I couldn't see anything. How does someone survive that, though? Who goes into a house that half burns down, and survives? I don't understand how I am here today - but the best, and most confusing part of that night, was that the fire missed the front lawn. 

The next day, when it had passed and we deemed it safe enough to leave, we all couldn't believe our eyes. For miles in every direction, there was nothing but burnt trees and nothingness - except for the front lawn. All of our cars were perfectly fine, as well as our belongings. It honestly was a miracle. Who knows how long it would have taken someone to come find us if we weren't able to leave in our own cars.


The next day - Sunday - is very hazy to me. All I can remember is driving, but I'm not sure where we were going to. I remember seeing nothing but burnt trees, animals and even cars. I went to school the next day, mostly because there was nothing else to do. We had no house, and I wasn't going to be able to help find one, so I might as well go to school. I still had all my books and uniform. Lots of people from my school were affected by the fires, and everyone was very supportive.

I can't say that this time in my life was particularly difficult, because it wasn't. I was okay - that's already so much better than other people had it. I had saved all my photos, and that meant the world to me. Not to mention how generous everyone was. People from across the world sent things to the victims of Black Saturday. It never felt like we went without. 

My most treasured item that I was given is a signed copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. JK Rowling sent out hundreds of them to kids who lost their homes and, ultimately, their book collections. I had just lived through a huge ordeal, but was impossible to feel bad for myself because all I could think of was how lucky I was to be alive.

I never went back to see the house - or what was left of it - but my mum did, and I think that's why the whole thing affected her a lot quicker than it affected me. The last time I saw the house, it was still a house, so for all I knew, it could've still been there. I've always been perfectly fine with talking about Black Saturday and my experience, but I have come to realise over the last few years that I definitely was affected by it. I remember people being worried that I was too okay with it all, but that is not the case now. 

I don't know why it took so long to come out - although it might have to do with other issues I have helping to bring it out - but I really am petrified of fire now. I freeze up if someone uses a lighter, or even cooks on a stove. My chest goes tight, and I assume the worst is going to happen, but I'm okay and I'm sure I'll get better with even more time. Now that I'm older, I'm realising where a lot of my anxiety-related issues originated, and that's helping me to work through them on my own. Daniel's trying to teach me how to cook, and that stoves really aren't as scary as they seem. We don't even have a gas stove, it's electric, so it really shouldn't scare me so much!

I'm not ashamed of my fears, though. I lived through something that no one should have to live through. I'm really not sure if the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" applies here, as I don't feel stronger, but I also know now that I can lose everything and build myself back up again. I can survive being possessionless. As much as I own know - which is way more than I ever owned back then - I know I could live without it, but I also appreciate it a lot more because I have lived without it. 

I've lived with nothing. We had no form of insurance before the fires, so we didn't have any money either - but the community, the world, really came through for us. It's a complete fluke that I'm still standing here, but it's thanks to everyone else that I'm where I am now. Each person that supported us, that took care of us, that had relief wash over their face when they realised we were alive, it's all thanks to them that I was able to move on so quickly and continue my life.

I still feel somewhat silly even writing this, because I know people had it so much worse, but I also think it's nice to acknowledge all the things people did for us eight years ago. Everyone who went through much worse than me are on my mind today. Every single person who put their life on the line to help others out. All the people who lost a loved one, or multiple of them, or were injured because of these fires - you are all on my mind today. Time may pass, but that doesn't make what happened any less real. Just try to remember how lucky we are to be alive.

Until next time,
Indya xx