x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Fires still burn as Australia counts cost

Survivors of the country's most disastrous bush fires are weighing up whether to rebuild their homes or walk away.

Kylie Gill and Lisa Clemance inspect the remains of their property at Steels Creek near Melbourne.
Kylie Gill and Lisa Clemance inspect the remains of their property at Steels Creek near Melbourne.

YEA, AUSTRALIA // As emergency crews try to contain several fires burning in the southern state of Victoria, survivors of the country's most disastrous bush fires are weighing up whether to rebuild their incinerated homes and businesses or walk away and start again elsewhere. The damage bill from the tragedy that has claimed at least 189 lives is estimated at AU$2 billion (Dh4.8bn) and a special authority has been established by the Victoria government to oversee reconstruction. Along with the huge financial cost, shattered communities will also pay a high emotional price as they begin their journey of renewal and repair. The earth beneath Rod Thomas's 47 hectare cattle property at Dixon's Creek, 60km from Melbourne, still smoulders and is warm to the touch after flames up to 11 metres high tore through on "Black Saturday". "Unfortunately the landscape here looks like the surface of Mars," said Mr Thomas as a gentle breeze whipped up clouds of fine, grey ash. Most of his land has been left blackened and useless although, miraculously, his animals survived. "If you look over the paddocks, you'd call them chargrilled. This is as bad as it could probably ever get in terms of fire. It's going to take a long time to get going again. "For a start, there's going to be huge pressure on resources. You're not going to be able to buy the sort of things you need immediately. The ground won't recover like it is and I'm going to have to re-seed. I won't be able to run livestock on this property probably until next summer." Dixon's Creek lies deep within Victoria's fire zone and sits on the Melba highway between the towns of Yarra Glen and Yea. The savagery of the firestorm has reduced hectares of trees to lifeless stumps. The landscape is punctuated by crushed buildings, while a smoky white haze envelops the entire region, diluting the rays of the sun and obscuring nearby hills. "I've spent 11 years turning this place into what was actually a beautiful property," Mr Thomas said, his voice wavering and tears in his eyes. "So, I guess what's happened is my clock has been wound back 11 years. I don't mind. I had a lot of fun doing it, but for some people they won't have the energy to do it and they'll just walk away. They'll be damaged emotionally." A short drive away, landlord Howard Batterham walks through what was the Glenburn pub. A once thriving business and family home is a mangled pile of twisted steel and dust, while scorched bar stools stand like metallic skeletons in the ruins. "That was the kitchen," Mr Batterham said as he pointed at a crumpled mass of cremated bricks and tiles. He believes reconstruction work could take up to three years and cost $1.5 million. "My wife doesn't want to rebuild. She's traumatised. She doesn't want to open, but I'd like to open it again. She reckons I'm mad." Ronni Batterham understands her husband's desire to start again but having narrowly escaped the flames she remains deeply unsure. "I can only put it in one word - horror," Mrs Batterham said. "I've absolutely no idea what we'll do now. I've spent the week looking after my family. I've had to help them find shelter and I need as the mother to take care of all those concerns. Once they're all right, then I'll look at my life. "I consider myself one of the lucky ones because my family is safe." Victoria's recovery effort is not simply about rebuilding businesses, schools and the 1,830 homes lost in the fires. Some mental scars might never heal as survivors struggle to deal with the events of Feb 7. Deborah Teazis's hands shake nervously as she recounts her last-minute escape from the fire-front that filled the sky with choking ash and smoke. "Coming down that mountain was terrible," she said softly. "There were cars everywhere with people in them who hadn't made it. They tried to flee and they just ended up being killed. There was nothing left. It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Everything was just black." In response to the catastrophe, several relief centres have been set up to assist those who lost family or were forced to abandon their homes. In Yea, rows of green army tents have provided emergency accommodation, while counsellors, insurance companies and local councils have offered clothing, food and practical support alongside charities and lawyers dispensing pro bono advice. "The first stage we've done as best we can; shelter, clothing, food, warmth, comfort and it's now into the next stage," said Mairi Mitchell from the Salvation Army. "I don't think anyone in this region will be untouched by some form of tragedy or trauma. The community will rebuild, but it's going to take time and psychologically it will take time to recover and be filled with hope again." pmercer@thenational.ae