Five Ruffy residents may have suffered the losses of the same fire, but their stories of recovery and their personal journeys could not be more different.
Valda Martin, Chris Schaff, Fiona Steel, Zel Austin and Lee Curtis were all affected by the Creighton’s Creek fire of December 2014, when a lightning strike caused more than 5000 hectares to be burnt, four houses destroyed and significant numbers of cattle, stock, sheds and fences lost.
Just under a year since the fire hit near Euroa, the five women gathered to reflect on what had been lost, and what had been gained through their small and tightknit community banding together.
There were mixed emotions as the women gathered at Valda’s McLean’s Lane orchard in Ruffy – the first time they had all shared a cuppa and chat together since the fires hit.
There was anger and questions about what if things had been done differently? There were sighs of relief that it wasn’t any worse and there was some sense of hope for renewal and things getting better.
Each story was different and as Valda points out, the way we all experience trauma, or traumatic situations is different.
“Even as someone who experienced the fire, it is so interesting to hear how it affected different people both at the time and almost a year on,” she said.
“We were so fortunate to not lose our house or our cherries but that does not account for the challenges we experienced on the day of the fire itself or the ongoing recovery of Ruffy and our neighbours.”
Think about Victoria’s fire safety message, the message to “Leave and Live.” This policy, the research and the Bushfires Royal Commission recommendations recognise that fire conditions and the way people respond to fire varies, but that leaving early before a fire remains the safest option.
Of course, Valda knows this. She knows the dangers of “wait and see”, of leaving late and getting caught on the roads, in the open or trapped in homes that cannot be defended.
But Valda and her husband Adrian also have to factor into their fire plan, their daughter Debbie, who they care for and who has a disability, which has contributed to the reasons she hasn’t left the property for more than 13 years.
For Valda and Adrian, leaving early is just not an option. Instead, the couple have a well thought out and practiced fire plan and have taken every step to ensure they are able to defend their property. Valda also mentions how quickly the fire started and took hold under high winds.
What they weren’t able to factor in, on the day of the fire, was neighbours and emergency services personnel turning up on their doorstep. For one reason or another, Valda and Adrian’s home became a central point to gather and a hub of emergency response activity, which only added to the emotional stress of experiencing a bushfire first hand and physical strain of defending a property.
“We were one of the few people on McLean’s Lane who were home at the time of the fire and we opened our home to so many people,” Valda said.
“At the same time, we were enacting our fire plan, loading up fruit to go off to the market among the smoke and hive of activity, turning the sprinklers on, making sure the pickers were safe and trying to look after ourselves too.
“There were helicopters filling up from the dam and CFA tankers filling at our shed, as well as people and police coming in and out of our property.
“We know that leaving our property is not an option so we have to be as prepared as we can be but that still doesn’t factor in the stress you will face during a fire.”
Up the road at Zel and her husband David’s house it is a very different story.
The couple, who were away from their property at the time, lost everything – their house, their sheep, their cattle, crops, fences, machinery and sheds.
For Zel and David, it is battling with the thoughts “why me?” and “why us?” Why couldn’t the aircraft save our property and why was the initial information so confusing?
But Zel knows this wasn’t the case for everyone. Some of her neighbours cannot speak highly enough of the water bombing helicopters and of the emergency warnings and advice, but some of these people also didn’t lose everything.
Zel speaks almost 12 months on of the ongoing recovery and deep, emotional trauma of a bushfire. Not only is she and her husband living in temporary accommodation, but at their property there is a constant reminder of the loss. Still, they find destroyed cattle and stock. These may not have been pets but they were animals which represented decades of their lives, and their livelihoods.
Zel touches on how men and women can also experience trauma differently. She and her four neighbours – Valda, Chris, Fiona and Lee – were able to come together to talk about their personal journeys, but this might not be as easy for their husbands or their partners.
“Talking to people has really helped a lot with some of my stress and worries and I think after a fire, it is so important as well as the rebuilding and focusing on things that just need doing or fixing, to think about your mental health and looking out for each other,” she said.
“And that is different for the women and the fellas and overall, just the ways different people cope. But you do need to find the right support network for you, whether that be friends, or family, your local book club or something else.”
Chris Schaff, who also lives on McLean’s Lane, echoed Zel’s message for looking out for yourself and your loved ones.
“I think in times of adversity you really do rely on each other for support and it is important to support each other – you have to get on with and it is hard when you’ve always been very independent, to ask for help, but sometimes you have to,” she said.
Chris was away at the time the fire swept through, taking out about 100-head of her cattle. Adding to the stress of being affected by the fire, she was in Melbourne at the time where her husband, Bernard, was in hospital undergoing an operation.
“We were receiving text messages and phone calls and our farm manager, David, was halfway up the Longwood-Ruffy Road and couldn’t get back. He just described the place as black and said you couldn’t see a thing,” she said.
“It was an extremely stressful situation to be so far away and not knowing what was going on and just hoping that everyone was safe.”
Chris too talks about experiencing sadness in losing cattle but finds some solace in her garden, in having that greenery and life to hide some of the blackened, burnt land surrounding the property.
Off McLean’s Lane is the Weibye Track where Fiona Steel has lived in her mud brick home for 34 years.
Her property is at the bottom of a slope, surrounded by dense bush.
Fiona knows that it would be too dangerous for emergency services to protect her property, and she would never expect them to.
“I wouldn’t want anyone risking their life to protect my property and the local brigade always knew that. My plan was not to be there,” she said.
And that is exactly what happened.
A significant amount of damage was done to Fiona’s home and just leading into the 12 month anniversary of the fire, she was still waiting for solar panels and gas to be reconnected so she could return to her property to live at the most basic level. Water will be an ongoing issue.
While all women are experiencing grief and loss in some form, Fiona talks about the loss of her privacy, the loss of the flora and fauna that was her haven and her shield from the limited traffic that passed through the Weibye Track.
After the fire passed through, the trees were gone and the track had been cleared to become a main thoroughfare. Not only for locals themselves but for anyone and everyone driving through just to take a look at the destruction.
“There were people driving up and down constantly, just to have a look. My privacy was completely gone,” Fiona said.
“And in the initial stages there were people going in and out of my house to do assessments and various work. But some of these people had seen my place before I even had. They were telling me about the damage and what was lost before I had even had the chance to visit.
“It can be very intrusive and unsettling. Sometimes you’re teetering on the edge and working to build up the strength and then the next challenge comes along.
“Recovery is a very personal journey, for you and of course the wider community.”
When you stand at Lee Curtis and John Butler’s property at the farthest point on McLean’s Lane, you can really start to get a feel for the landscape, nestled within the Strathbogies, among bush and rugged granite rock outcrop. It is some of the most picturesque countryside but due to the fuel loads and steep terrain, also high fire risk.
Lee was also away at the time of the fire, with her mother who was in hospital, while her husband John was in Sydney. She explains how the fire surrounded three sides of her house.
She shows the burnt area right around her property and attributes the save to the water bombing aircraft.
“We wouldn’t have a house if it wasn’t for the CFA and the water bombing helicopters,” she said.
“We cannot explain how lucky we were, and also that it was so early in the season we had so many resources on this fire. But we know it is not the same for our neighbours and it really is unbelievable how different it has been from property to property.”
When Fiona reflects on the overall recovery to sum it up for herself and her Ruffy neighbours she talks about the common theme.
“Well it is about human impact. There are the losses of houses and animals and our surroundings but these are all things that impact us, as people and as a small community. Everyone will experience it differently but in the recovery process at all levels, we can never lose sight of the human impact.”