It was the anniversary of Black Saturday.
Three years ago yesterday, the freak of nature weather conditions aided a bushfire, that ripped through town after town, destroying everything in its path and leaving basically nothing untouched. It wiped entire towns almost completely off the map....just endless kilometres of ashes and rubble left in its wake. People ran screaming from their homes, just to be devoured by the unrelenting hurricane type winds, all consuming heat, and angry, hungry flames. 173 people lost their lives.
I will never forget that day, or the hours following. It is burned in my memory....a picture forever branded on my mind that can't be erased, no matter how hard I try. I still can't talk about it without dissolving into tears. The fear still consumes me as if it was yesterday.
My husband was going interstate for a couple of days with a mate, as I gave him tickets to see 'Top Gear Live' for Christmas. Because he was going to be away, my Mum offered to have my (then) 3 year old son for the weekend, so I would only have to worry about my 18 month old. I accepted gladly, as I also had baskets and baskets of possum babies that had been coming in over the preceding days due to the intense heat. I was feeling quite exhausted, so the thought of not having to worry about Master 3 was wonderful. Little did I know how much worrying I would do in the next few days.
My parents live in Flowerdale, Victoria, which was one of the worst hit areas. Only 10% of the town was left standing after that day. Had I thought about the chance of fire before I met Mum to drop my son off, he would never have gone. It wasn't until the night before Black Saturday, when I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep in the heat, that I suddenly thought "Oh my God, I hope there's no fires near Mum's this weekend." I instantly felt sick, and as I'm prone to anxiety, I had trouble calming myself down. But after eventually convincing myself that I was just being silly, I fell asleep.
Was that a premonition of some sort? Or did my thinking about it put it out there. I wonder.
On the Saturday morning, I rang Mum, as I always do when the boys are there, to say good morning. I had been looking at the CFA website checking on the status of other fires burning around the state, as my worries from the previous night were still lingering, and the website was saying that there were warnings for Flowerdale. Mum assured me that the fires were nowhere near them, and after telling my son that I loved him and to have a wonderful day, we hung up.
It was 45 degrees Celsius in Melbourne, so I spent the day trying to stay out of the heat and doing washing, as the wind was so hot and strong it was drying everything in minutes. I can remember standing out under my washing line, feeling like I was standing in front of a heater turned on full. I had never felt anything like it.
I was continuously checking the Fire Authority website and feeling more and more uneasy. Additional warnings were being listed all the time, and the warnings for Flowerdale were still current. News programs were reporting on the seriousness of some of the existing fires and some of the highways around outer Melbourne were starting to close, one of them being a major link from my place to Mum's.
At around 4pm, I rang Mum again, just to check in, and I begged her to bring my son home, not able to hide my fear any more. I told her about the warnings being listed for Flowerdale, which surprised her as there was no sign of anything wrong. Of course there was smoke around, but they just assumed it was travelling on the wind. She told my stepfather about the warnings I mentioned, but he also assured me that they were fine, and they couldn't come to me anyway as the Melba and Hume Highways had both been closed. "We're fine Tracey, don't worry" he said. As if.
What followed was the most terrifying 36 hours of my life.
During the night I kept calling them, but constantly got an engaged signal. I tried both of my parents mobiles and the home phone, over and over again, to no avail. In the morning I called my sister to ask if she had heard from Mum, but she also hadn't. There was something in her voice, which she was trying very hard to hide, that told me she was worried too. A lot.
Not long after my Mother-in-law rang, and was relieved when I answered the phone.
"Oh good", she said, "you are there. I was worried you might have gone to your Mum's."
"No, Baby and I are here, but Master 3 is there."
"OH NO," she screamed, causing me to almost drop the phone.
You have to understand, my Mother-in-law would have to be the most unruffled person I know. Nothing ever phases her.....she is always cool, calm and collected under any circumstances. She is the type of person that you want to have around in an emergency, as she just does what needs to be done, minus all the fuss. So you can imagine my terror on hearing her reaction. If SHE was concerned about my son, then I definitely had a reason to be, and the realization of that sent shock waves down my spine.
From that moment on, my panic was in overdrive.
One of my husband's sisters, who is a police officer, started making phone calls and left my parents details at the refuges that had been set up. So far, there was no sign of them.
I was in regular phone contact with my husband, who was madly trying to make his way home. Crying on the phone and telling him how scared I was, I couldn't understand why he wasn't answering me.....why he wasn't reassuring me that everything was going to be alright. It wasn't until days later that my husband confessed he had been struggling to hold it together on the other end of the phone. He had been listening to the ABC radio while travelling and knew that the situation in Flowerdale was dire. He also knew, that if I heard him fall apart, I would too....completely....and he needed me to be able to look after our baby. So he just had to swallow his fear, take a deep breath, and keep talking as normally as possible. He was so strong.
Over the course of the day, the news bulletins on the television started showing images of Flowerdale, and I fell to my knees sobbing when I first saw them. There was nothing left. At least, that was how it looked.
Finally I had to admit it to myself. They were gone. I had lost my parents and my son in one fell swoop. My whole world would never be the same again. My life, as I knew it, was over.
The rest of the day went by in a haze. My other Sister-in-law turned up at my front door to stay with me so that I wasn't alone. One of the girls from my wildlife group turned up to take all of the possum babies, as I just couldn't deal with them as well. The phone rang almost constantly, with my sister, husband, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law all checking in, but it was never the call I wanted. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sit still. I cried. I paced. I mourned.
Finally, as day was turning into night, my sister rang in tears.
"They're ok", she screamed into the phone, 'they're alive!"
The relief was incredible. I collapsed to the floor, crying tears of joy. We didn't know where they were, whether they had made it to a shelter, or were still at home, but they were alive, and for the time being that was enough for me.
Thanks to the calls from my sister in law, the CFA (as soon as it was safe) went and door knocked at my parent's house (which was still standing) and found my parents and son, unharmed, but incredibly relieved to see them. Mum asked them if they had any way that she could make a call, as she knew I would be frantic, so one of the firemen gave her his radio and she called my sister. It was the only number she could remember at the time.
The next morning we were able to meet them in Seymour as the Hume Highway had opened again, and I had never been happier to see anyone in my life! I grabbed my son and held him for ages.....just didn't want to let him go. My parents were able to tell us what happened, and although they played it down, I knew that it was terrifying for them, especially with Master 3 there. My Mum kept getting teary and was shaking from time to time, so I could see clearly what an ordeal it must have been.
There had been no warnings for the exact area where my parents house is, and by the time the warnings were listed, the fire had already been through. On that night, my son had not long been put to bed when my Mum's friend rang, as she had heard that all of Flowerdale was alight. Mum tried to tell her that there was no fire near them and her friend shouted to her "YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO ME....FLOWERDALE IS ON FIRE!!!" At that very moment my Mum looked out her kitchen window and saw the fire coming over the hill towards them. Screaming to my stepfather, she dropped the phone and ran to the laundry to get wet towels to put along the doors and windows. The phone went dead, so my Mum's friend thought the worst too.
My stepfather was outside fighting the fire, and my mother was helping him when she could and then racing inside every few minutes, to check on my son. Amazingly he slept through the whole event, which I'm so grateful for. I can only imagine how traumatic it would have been for him to have seen fire everywhere, as well as how frantic my parents were. My Mum had his bed surrounded by soaking wet towels and finally, after deciding he couldn't do any more, my stepfather came inside and they both kept a vigil by his bed.
Amazingly, the fire stopped pretty much at the fence line on either side, but destroyed everything along the creek at the bottom of the property. My parents had never seen anything like the wall of flames that had raced along the waters edge. My step-dad decided to go inside when he thought the shed was just about to go up, but it didn't. He was amazed to see it still standing.
For days after coming home, my son ran around making the noise of fire engines, as they saw and heard hundreds of them. Normally it would have driven me nuts, but on this occasion it was like music to my ears!
As horrific as this weekend was for all of us, we were the lucky ones. We didn't lose a thing, whereas so many others lost it all. I actually feel a bit guilty for it still affecting me as badly as it does. My family is fine, so part of me feels like I have no right to feel the way I do. But I guess, for the longest time on that horrible weekend, I thought I had lost so much.
My parents still live in Flowerdale, and the sense of community is very strong as so many people rebuild their lives. My boys no longer visit in Summer, unless it has been particularly cool or wet. I have thanked the universe every single day since and try to never take a moment for granted. Every time I get angry at my son, for whatever reason, inside I'm silently thanking the powers that be, for the simple fact that he's even here to make me angry in the first place.