Followup on Australia’s Black Saturday fires

Death toll reduced

Originally placed at 210, the total number of fatalities in the February Black Saturday fires in Australia has been reduced to 173.  This is due primarily to some remains being found to be animal bones and others thought to be from multiple victims were actually from the same person.

Reporter’s personal account of Black Saturday

Gary Hughes, a reporter for The Australian, has written a gripping account of how he and his wife escaped their house as it burned around them, and then how they coped in the four days that followed.  Here is an excerpt.

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Surreal. That’s the term we and other survivors like us will begin to use in the days and weeks to come. But this first morning I grope unsuccessfully with a still-numbed mind for the right word to describe what is happening to us.

There have been brief snatches of exhausted sleep haunted by fiery images playing through my mind like an endless video loop. They call it “ember attack”, but the term nowhere near describes the terrifying reality.

On that endless video loop the hail of glowing demons fly at us relentlessly out of the artificial darkness of the smoke. We are trapped, eternally flailing at the embers with wet towels as they hunt for us through every tiny crack and crevasse of our house.

This first morning, having escaped from our house after it was engulfed and consumed by the Black Saturday firestorms, we are still driven by adrenalin. In coming days that adrenalin surge will end, replaced by waves of intense weariness that will plague our efforts to struggle through this first week. But today, adrenalin is our friend.

Wrapped in numbness and disbelief, our priorities are dictated by necessity. We leave the security of the relative’s house where we found shelter the night before to seek medical treatment for superficial burns and smoke inhalation. We had stayed huddled in our burning hilltop home of almost 25 years in St Andrews, just south of Kinglake, until the flames and toxic smoke left us with a choice between staying and certainly dying, or probably dying outside from radiant heat on the run to the car.

But the deepest injuries, as we will quickly discover, are not physical. That run for our lives had been so desperate that we escaped with virtually nothing, not even loose change. The firestorm has stolen our identities, destroying the plastic cards that define who you are in our computerised, cashless world. We are non-people. With cash provided by relatives and wearing borrowed clothes we buy basic necessities such as underwear, a razor, toothbrushes and toothpaste. I am amazed at how little we really need.

I obtain a replacement SIM card and using an old, borrowed mobile telephone I reconnect to the outside world. It’s a move I’ll regret in coming days.