One Week Later

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Saturday 25 January

It's exactly a week later and the excitement and adrenaline is starting to wear off. Canberra has been warned to expect a weekend of high fire danger and is petrified it will happen again, but we are in limbo, stuck in a hotel. Me, with my foot in the air, waiting for the swelling to go down (I haven't been a good or obedient patient - there's been too much to do) and Lyndsey just waiting.

Waiting isn't quite the same as relaxing, not when you want to make things happen.

Our house still hasn't got electricity yet and judging by the state of the power poles down our road, it's going to be a few days yet. We have contacted the insurance company and will get the house cleaned on Monday 3 February, assuming the power is back. Phones? who knows (see below for how wrong I was). When we were at the house yesterday, we noticed that the phone cable had broken and fallen down. There's a lot of work to be done getting all the basic services up and going again and everyone concerned is working as hard as possible, for which we are grateful.

Talking of being grateful, we have many to thank. My company, IBM, who have paid for our hotel accommodation and unlimited sick leave. This benefits not only us, but frees up scarce resources such as evacuation centres for others.

The Griffin Hotel in Kingston, who have made space for us and other families with not a word of complaint about how difficult is has been to fit us all in at a time when they are fully booked.

Friends, colleagues and strangers who have sent messages of support and offers of help.

But it is getting harder. After the relief of having a house and contents undamaged came the realisation that we had lost a mature and beautiful 25 year old garden. One reason we bought the property last year was because of the wonderful range of plants and trees that the previous (original) owner had so expertly planted and cared for.

We used to live in Sydney until about ten years ago. We had lived there since we emigrated in 1972. We tried moving back about eighteen months ago and lived in an apartment in the sky. It was then we discovered that what goes for modern living is, for us, little more than existing. We missed having our feet on the ground, soil to plant things in and living plants to nurture and appreciate as they grow and mature..

So we were somewhat upset to discover that the garden is not covered by insurance. This was followed by the realisation that what has been lost cannot be replaced as easily as houses, electricity, phone lines. In fact, it is rather like losing one's possessions, and as hard to rectify, This time next year, many houses will have been rebuilt, services will be working again but not many quarter century year old gardens will have been replaced.

We have not yet had a full year of watching the different trees, shrubs, plants and flowers emerge and show their particular beauty. We were especially waiting for autumn when the deciduous trees in Canberra usually give a magnificent display, Not our trees. Not this year.

Our trees are now blackened skeletons, more stark than in mid winter and without having displayed all the wonderful autumnal shades of red, yellow, russet and brown.

And then there is Lyndsey's pride and joy, a weeping mulberry. All we have left are some frozen mulberries that we rescued from the freezer on a return visit, and a tree that might -- with hugs and what water she can give it in our current drought -- just might, recover.

Click photos for larger images

There is some little hope that the garden will regenerate, even if it is only a few small things. We found a couple of strawberries lurking under the hay we had put down to protect the bed against the frost - such irony. And we have a crown of rhubarb that has been brave - or foolish - enough to send out an exploratory green tip. However the signs of new growth are few and far between, since most of the garden is a black ash, with no evidence that plants were ever there. Even the lawn has been burned away in parts. The soil will not be in a fit state to plant this autumn, and it is unlikely that there will be much planting in our, or any other fire damaged garden, before next spring.

The Australian Capital Territory government is performing miracles getting the city back on its feet. The community is responding magnificently and it is amazing to watch things being organised so quickly and so well. But nothing yet seems to be available for rescuing the many gardens. People and homes, rightly, come first, but quality of life, connecting with nature and peace and tranquillity often come from being close to the ground.

On the dark side, we had a note from the hotel yesterday that said : "Dear Guest, We have been advised that crime rates across Canberra have increased dramatically in the last week. It would be prudent not to leave any valuables or any items in your vehicle, parked either at the Hotel or anywhere in Canberra"

And here I am sitting in a hotel room with my aching foot in the air, unable to move around freely or do anything useful like start to clean the house, clear the carbonised garden and just get on with life. It's not easy.

I guess it is the feeling of helplessness, and all that work and effort facing us, that is becoming difficult to deal with. Psychologists no doubt would recognise it and have a word that describes it. Just because it is to be expected and happens to others, doesn't make it easy to deal with.

The Next Day

Sunday 26 January

And then the local community kicked in..

We had a phone call from Ross James at Number 30 Percy Crescent. People from Jim's Mowing Service and been past and offerred to take all garden refuse off to the tip, provided it could be put on the nature strip. So, resouceful Ross rang up the local ABC radio station (our primary source of news) and found himself live to air asking for volunteers to help clear up gardens. He rang us at the hotel and we were off like a shot.

When we got to our house we discovered a number of amazing things.

The phones were actually working. What I had assumed was a broken line, was in fact a brand new cable, loosely laid over the garden, but fully connected and waiting for the power poles to be replaced.

The other thing was a brand new steel power pole - well part of one. Because the ACTEW people could not get their gear close enough through the rubble, they had put one up virtually by hand. This is what it looked like when we arrived:

The guys who put up the rest of the pole and transferred all the wires to it deserve a medal each. The temperature was about 40C, it was windy, they were in protective clothing and gloves, but they did a magnificent and professional job.

This is them working away on the pole.

And when they had finished, they started again, on the next one along. According to the radio, they and their mates will have put up about 1,000 poles in 8 days. That's 125 a day. The normal rate is 20. And if anyone suggests that they don't normally work very hard, an awful lot of Canberrans are likely to leap aggressively to their defence. They have borrowed equipment and people from all over the place and staff who were rostered off for the long week end (today is Australia day and tomorrow is a public holiday) have called in to help. They have all gone above and beyond the call of duty.

The other thing that astounded us was the volunteers who had just turned up to help. One helper who wielded his chain saw around our garden was from the north of Canberra. He was the property manager at a college and because his place and the college were not at risk he just came down to help. He looked exhausted when he left after a full day's work in high temperatures and difficult conditions.

We also benefitted from the efforts of another chainsaw wielder Mark, who just seemed to be wandering round performing minor miracles and then disappeared into the sunset. There were other wonderful mysterious strangers who turned up with cold drinks, iceblocks and other goodies.

We were not overly amused or impressed by the large number of tourists and sightseers who wandered up our street, driving slowly, looking left and right and blocking the road. None of these characters ever seemed to think of stopping and helping. I guess they might have seen and appreciated the extent of the devastation. We just hope that it has encouraged them to make donations to the bush fire appeal and to realise just how impossible it was for anyone to stopped it happening.

Ross James had not only organised helpers over the radio, but his three sons and their friends/partners also mucked in. So had other neighbours, and at the end of the day our front garden was a blackened mess, but this time it was deliberate and was waiting to be transported to the tip.

At the end of the day Ross arranged a few beers, in the best Australian fashion.

This is his son Simon and partner Cathy who, instead of spending the day gardening in their new place in Sydney spent it clearing ours (and others) in Canberra.

So, once again things change rapidly. We now expect power to be back tonight, the phones are already working. We will return to the house tomorrow and switch the mains back on and get the fridge going. We will try a little vacuuming and cleaning - after the exertions of today we might not be up for a lot. Not that I did a whole lot just sitting there like Lord Muck with my stupid foot in the air while everyone else got exhausted and dirty. However, Lyndsey slaved away with the rest of them and got back to the hotel covered in ash and very tired.

Bernard and Lyndsey Robertson-Dunn's Canberra bushfire website
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