x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Residents rebuild after Victoria fires

People choose not to leave despite forecasts of a return of the deadly bushfires that raged across the south Australian state in February.

A new home under construction, front, on the outskirts of St Andrews, one of the hardest hit towns in the bushfires that raged through the southern Australian state of Victoria earlier this year.  Sue Aldred, above, 53, is one town resident who has decided to rebuild rather than move away.
A new home under construction, front, on the outskirts of St Andrews, one of the hardest hit towns in the bushfires that raged through the southern Australian state of Victoria earlier this year. Sue Aldred, above, 53, is one town resident who has decided to rebuild rather than move away.

St Andrews, Australia // There is little left of Toni-Anne Collins's property in this fire-prone part of south-eastern Australia. Twisted iron rods and a wide plot of hardened ash mark where her home once stood, consumed by flames, like thousands of others, during the February 7, or Black Saturday, fires.

"No one told us," Mrs Collins, 50, said, as she stood on the site of her former home. "Suddenly, everything went quiet and burning things fell from the sky." Mrs Collins and her elder daughter Jess barely had time to jump into their car before the fire engulfed their property and the neighbouring street. When the fires were finally extinguished, 173 people were dead and more than 2,000 homes destroyed.

Now, seven months on, Mrs Collins is one of hundreds who have decided to stay in Victoria's central highlands and rebuild, despite warnings that this season could see fires equally as fierce. "I feel compelled to rebuild. I'd be beaten if I just walked away," she said. Across St Andrews and Kinglake, two of the hardest hit towns, solitary caravans and tents sit on or beside the ashes of former properties as survivors wait for planning approval or just the funds to be able to rebuild again.

For others, the pain of losing homes and, in some cases, family to the fire has proven too much as the many white "For sale" and "Sold" signs show. Only a couple of minutes' drive from Mrs Collins' home, the line where the fires stopped cuts a clear marker on the border of St Andrews town. The "Black Belt", as it is known to locals, shows just how close the main town came to destruction. The fire was like nothing the easy-going residents of Victoria's hinterlands had seen before. Over a decade of drought had left the bush a tinderbox.

"We watched Kinglake burn around us," said Jaysherrie Harper, 35, a resident of Kinglake, who lost her family home. "It was the most terrifying thing I've ever been through. We left literally with the clothes on our back and lost everything else." On the small residential block where Mrs Harper and her husband, Michael, are building their new home, friends have pitched in to clear the charred stumps and felled tree branches. On either side of the Harpers' plot, neighbours have sold up and moved.

"It really is a such a pity that [our neighbours] are moving on but I don't think for them it was the same place anymore," said Mr Harper, wiping ash and sweat from his forehead as he cleared stumps and branches. The Harpers, along with their two children, are renting a shed 15 minutes' drive from the property and hope building will get under way later this month. The children, whose previous school burnt to the ground, also lost a number of classmates.

"We've been here 10 years and for us there was really no choice of moving away," said Mrs Harper. "It's been a big part of the healing process, being around everyone here." Rebuilding, however, is not a simple process. While the Australian government has provided a Bushfire Relief Grant for those affected, a great many fire victims were either underinsured or not insured at all, making the prospect of building a new home unattainable or very difficult.

On top of this, the newly imposed Bushfire Attack Level policy grades homes on fire danger and legally binds owners to build from non-combustible materials, raising the cost of construction significantly. According to some estimates, those building in areas where the fire risk is extreme would be paying on average 20,000 Australian dollars (Dh61,000) more to build their home. In the community itself, the fire has left its mark. Local authorities have said anecdotal evidence shows alcoholism, divorce and domestic abuse are all on the rise. Unemployment is also a growing problem.

But there are signs that the fire has strengthened the community, or at least those who have decided to stay. Ringed by blackened forest, the resurfaced Kinglake "Aussie Rules" football club sports a new slogan - "We can't be beaten". Down the valley in the town of St Andrews, the Black Belt Ladies Club meets for tea each month, providing practical as well as emotional support to each other. "Some have lost husbands and sons to the fire," said Mrs Collins. "The meetings are just an informal way of dealing with our own individual stories."

With a new fire season beginning in only a matter of weeks, residents are being urged to prepare. Already fires are raging to the north, with multiple blazes threatening houses south of Sydney this week. Gutters are being cleared and foliage cut down, while career and volunteer firefighters do drills in preparation. There is also an ongoing argument about whether to cull native trees close to homes and replant European deciduous trees, which are less susceptible to bushfires.

"I'd say this is the kind of fire we may face in the future: ferocious and unpredictable," said Helen Kenney, captain of the local Country Fire Authority (CFA) and a 25-year resident of St Andrews. "The CFA issued warnings about fire way back from last November but I think people just became complacent. People have complained that they didn't get a knock on the door that day but we've told them for years not to expect a warning."

But a commission set up by the government to investigate the fire said authorities were unprepared for it and that a communication breakdown on the day meant regular updates on fire locations did not reach residents or authorities in time. An interim report released by the commission in mid-August, which the government has subsequently agreed to follow, has suggested use of a blitz-style siren, coupled with information, to sound over television and radio at the approach of a fire. It has also recommended the identification and use of neighbourhood 'safe places', where communities can shelter in the event of extreme bushfires.

Another major role of the commission has been developing clear outlines on the "stay or go" policy. The policy deals with whether residents should pack and leave or stay and fight the fire from their property. For those who do stay, the question is how to make them better prepared. "It would be naive to say that there'll never be a fire here again," said Mrs Harper. "All we just hope is that it won't measure up to the one we saw that day."

* The National