“It’s provoking for so many people,” said Michelle French, 53.
That February 2009, she and her husband Colin and their children Darcy and Vanessa, who were then 11 and 10 years old, had an hour to collect their belongings. They packed in two cars with their dog and guinea pig and fled. The fire almost caught them, he said, while escaping for six hours on blocked and dangerous roads.
All that remained of the French family’s property, where they operated a school camp business, was a pool and a trailer full of canoes. A toilet was standing but it was near the collapse. In total, they lost 15 buildings. The only household items that survived were a red cast iron pot and one of Colin’s shirts, which hung from a clothesline next to the melted pegs.
The French have rebuilt the camp facilities and opened an adventure tourism business. But fires are never far from their lives; In recent weeks, Michelle French has organized temporary housing for evacuees from areas devastated by fires in other parts of the state of Victoria. Among them was a mother with two children, one with asthma, who was looking for a breath of smoke-filled air.
“I know how difficult it is to accept help and generosity, but this is also about me: helping someone and doing my part by paying in advance. I got help when I needed it, ”said French. “It’s also about my healing process.”
A recent day they closed the camp due to the fog of smoke, with the quality of the air considered dangerous by environmental officials.
The road to recovery
Sitting at a picnic table with her Hungarian dog Vizsla, Nico, French recounted her family’s recovery.
His resistance and humor stand out. Nico’s label says: “Make your people call my people,” with a contact number on the back.
“I can’t complain; my children are killing him,” he said.
Darcy, 22, studies international relations in Paris. But he is at home for the Australian summer, helping with his parents’ business.
Using a helmet and harness to climb trees and zip lines, he refuses to be defined by fires. He has a tattoo on his thigh with the words “come back to yourself.”
As a child, Darcy did not understand the enormity of Black Saturday, which at first he thought was an adventure.
“It was only that night and until the following days I realized that it was a horrible tragedy,” he said. “At that age, when you discover that the people in your school you were talking to just a few days before had died and that the father of one of your best friends died, you don’t know how to deal with it.”
While the French family has collected the pieces, others have not.
“Right now, there are people in the community who are at the lowest of the lowest, I don’t think they can go down any more, and you can track a lot of that until Black Saturday,” said Darcy.
A study from the University of Melbourne found that 26 percent of people in the most affected areas, approximately double the national rate, showed signs of mental health problems three or four years after the fires, including the disorder of PTSD, psychological distress and depression.
‘Our new normal’
On the road to Kinglake, the flag on the new station of the Country Fire Authority flies at half-mast for respect to those who have lost their lives, including firefighters.
Some 1,500 firefighters are fighting the flames in Victoria while fires that have killed at least 28 people are burned in southeastern Australia. State leader Daniel Andrews has promised about $ 2 million to review preparation, relief and recovery procedures before the next fire season.
“This is perhaps our new normal: where we will see more and more of this fierce and unprecedented fire activity that comes to us much, much earlier,” he said at a press conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Kinglake has been rebuilt. There are new brick houses, kindergartens, an architecturally designed church, restaurants and a commercial strip. The community-owned service station that exploded on Black Saturday has been replaced by a larger and bright-looking one.
Resident Kym Smith, 56, said her daughter Mykaela, now 21, attended 14 funerals after the fires.
“My daughter was a stubborn girl, I didn’t want to go to any psychologist,” he said. It wasn’t until an incident much later that he agreed to talk to someone. Mykaela was alone in her boyfriend’s house when a refrigerator caught fire, leaving her inconsolable for hours, she said.
On Black Saturday, Smith, her husband, Brendan and Mykaela had minutes to flee.
With the power off and the temperature reaching 113 degrees Fahrenheit, they were inside with the blinds down, playing Scrabble by candlelight.
As he went out to get a cigarette, Brendan heard a sound like a thunderous jet, Smith said, and saw llamas jump 300 feet into the air as trees exploded along the street.
He ran inside and told his wife and daughter to take their keys. They fled without shoes, only the clothes they were wearing, and their dog and rabbit, as they walked away.
“If Brendan hadn’t gone out to smoke a cigarette, we would have died,” Smith said.
Smith said her husband was the most traumatized in the family. Challenging the roadblocks a day later, he passed burned cars where people had been trapped and perished.
Back in the city, people gathered, their faces covered in soot. Goats and other animals were tied to the toilets on the main street.
“It looked like a scene from a black and white war movie,” Smith said. “There was no color, only shades of gray. Even the white lines on the road had disappeared, ”he said.
Smith said some people urged her to leave Kinglake, but her attachment to the landscape here is strong. The city is beyond the urban periphery and is surrounded by bushes, an environment that said it cannot leave after 33 years.
‘We still live with fear’
In Kinglake West, Deb and Mark Morrow, who lost their home on Black Saturday, say they live in a tinder again.
The regenerated thickets next to their rebuilt house are completely dry. Between dead wood and new growth, Deb fears there will be more fuel for fires than before Black Saturday.
“The weed is three times as bad as in 2009,” he said.
They have a dam that is always full of water. They installed a hole and maintain a buffer zone at the rear of the property, along with fire pumps and solar batteries.
They are almost self-sufficient, with chickens and a garden full of corn, pumpkins and zucchini.
But fear is always there. The threat of fire return has baffled people in Kinglake. They have worked hard to rebuild their city.
“We believe we can save the property if there is another fire, but we still live in fear,” said Deb.