12 February 2009

Black Saturday

Really, I've been divided about whether to blog about Black Saturday or not -- there has been so much media coverage that it feels like there is nothing left to say. And yet it is still a preoccupation I can't move away from, a tragedy I'm nursing inside. I have read more articles in the newspapers and on the web, have listened to more radio news and watched more television news this week than I have since the opening days of the Gulf War, which was streamed live to us nonstop for weeks. (I remember I was in Sydney for a three-day training camp on a new piece of lab equipment we'd just acquired -- the first time I'd ever been sent, and I just couldn't concentrate on training at the time.)

Black Saturday was a phenomenal day in every bad way imaginable: 46.4 degrees in Melbourne, 47.9 in Avalon, which is less than an hour from here, with gusting and searing north winds. We ran the evaporative cooler and kept braving outside to jump in the pool and then beat a hasty retreat inside. We couldn't stay in the pool: the wind was smashing grit into our faces and made staying there very unpleasant. But being wet and back inside with the evaporative cooling was almost comfortable.

Outside was like standing in front of an angry dragon: the air was scorching. I could almost smell the brimstone. So how those poor people who were trapped in it felt -- how those firefighters faced up to it . . . I've always been afraid of fire, of dying in fire, and to see this conflagration was the stuff of nightmare. Trite, I know, for what was truly tragic and unimaginable and horrific and awe-inspiring and awful and fearsome and a hundred other adjectives, a thousand other adjectives that describe hell itself.

I suppose I'm lucky in that I don't personally know anyone who has been affected --it's more of a three degrees of separation thing. The closest I've come is with the death of Brian Naylor, the Channel 9 newsreader. We grew up with Brian Naylor in our houses -- a generation who remembers what it was like when "Brian told me so". He was one I wept for, but there were many more. I could recount some of them, but they're not my stories to tell. Not often a writer feels like this.

Such tragedies bring out the best and the worst in us. I've been moved to tears several times, listening to stories of selflessness and courage. And to see Australia's (and some other countries') response/s also moves me. Then there's the other side: the looters, those who've stolen collection tins, and the firebugs themselves. Bad enough those who lit the fires in the first place, but after such carnage, such loss of life, how could people light more? How? I just don't understand, and I'm not sure I want to. Humanity has both its great side and its repellent.

In the meantime, we're left with smoke haze, the smell of burnt eucalypt, and spectacular sunsets. (Here's one I've added later, from 13 February. Reminds me of the Tim Winton novel That eye, the sky -- well, not so much the novel as the title. It is like a large baleful eye, looking down on us, on the disaster unfolding around us.)

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