In the days after Black Saturday, Pat Easterbrook went down to the Mudgegonga Hall and saw a bundle of letters sent from Canberra by primary school students.
The messy scrawl, of children no older than six or seven, read innocent messages like “Dear Victorians, we’re sorry everything is burnt”.
Mrs Easterbrook, a school teacher by trade, decided to reply to the group.
“I read through all the letters and included each of their names on this big piece of cardboard, and wrote this story for them,” she said.
“I told them that it was really sad, and that my neighbours and friends next door were called John and Sue, and they were really lovely people and they died.
“I sent this big letter back to the children, and they kept writing to me throughout the year.
“I don’t think many people knew I did that, but I felt good about it.”
These letters were among the many displays of empathy and kindness that took place in the aftermath of the fires that destroyed 33,577 hectares and 38 homes in the North East alone in February, 2009.
For example, the Department of Primary Industries staffer making arrangements for stock carcasses stopped by Mrs Easterbrook’s property, and upon noticing her dazed state, made toast and tea without comment.
There were the fresh pillows – so appreciated because they didn’t reek of smoke – and countless more donations of towels, groceries and other goods.
Mrs Easterbrook got a call the night before Beechworth Correctional Centre prisoners were coming to replace fencing, and she offered to make morning tea for them.
“I got off the phone and thought ‘I can’t really even handle making toast right now, why did I say that?’,” Mrs Easterbrook said.
“So I rang up Jill Parkes and asked if she could do something for me – straight away she said ‘yep, leave it with me’, and the next day brought over huge platters of sandwiches and cakes.
“Jill then organised someone else to come the next day with food, and the day after.
“At one point a prisoner said ‘this cake’s not very good’, so then we had this thing happening of ‘which cake did you like best?’.
“They wrote the cakes down on pieces of cardboard, stuck them to a post, and rated them as each new cake came in.
“I still have those pieces of cardboard.
“A big thing for me was the help that came from all sorts of places.”
These moments of humour and generosity were crucial distractions from the mourning and clean-up and the subsequent insurance negotiations and royal commission.
Some in the community didn’t talk about what was happening, and they still don’t now.
But many of the 200-odd people who live in the Mudgegonga area feel they became closer through the tragedy.
Barbara Broz of Barwidgee Creek said she came to meet many of her neighbours at the various community gatherings after the fires.
“I knew of a lot of people in Mudgegonga, but didn’t know them personally,” she said.
“The amount of events that were happening have eased off a little bit now, but we have a new personal connection.”
Mrs Broz sees reminders of the fire around her.
“There’s one tree in the yard that was a seedling at the time, that’s now huge, and I’ve watched it grow over the last 10 years,” she said.
“A lot burned at the time, and the house for some reason stayed.
“I think if the Buffalo fire truck hadn’t come down when it did, the house would have been lost.”
Mudgegonga fire brigade captain Bernard Carroll was milking cows on his then-dairy farm off Carrolls Road when he got the call about the blaze, ignited when a tree fell on a power line.
“At about 6pm someone called in on the UHF radio and said ‘there’s a fire that’s started south of Beechworth’ and it sent a shiver down your spine because it was so hot and windy,” he said.
“I stuck my head out of the dairy and couldn’t see anything, put another run of cows on and then looked out again, and saw the smoke.
“I contacted the then-captain to see what I could do, and he said there was a crew at the shed and to hang around the farm and call if I spotted anything.
“I was up the top of the track near Pat’s place and could see right down into Barwidgee, and the Stanley-Myrtleford road area where the fire was coming down.
“You could see the smoke billowing.”
A large crown fire developed near midnight on February 7 as a south-westerly wind change occurred, with spotting taking place up to nine kilometres ahead of the main fire front.
Mr Carroll said these spot fires increased in size within seconds of starting.
“Embers were raining down,” he said.
“There was an idea that you might be able to pull it up at the Myrtleford-Yackandandah Road, but it didn’t take long to realise this was a huge firestorm and it would just be a matter of trying to defend.”
Mrs Easterbrook described the noise of the fire as “like a jet coming over” as she and her late husband Lindsay fought to protect their home.
“I know it started at this house at 10 to midnight because I can remember looking at the clock,” she said.
“Lindsay had a garden hose attached to the washing machine tap in the house, with a firefighting pump and a massive sprinkler system on the roof, and we pretty much emptied our dam.
”We didn’t really stop and at 2.20 in the morning, a firetruck pulled in.
“One of the firefighters said ‘you’ve done a mighty job saving this’, and I didn’t really know what he was talking about – I didn’t know what he’d just seen next door.”
The Easterbrooks’ neighbours John and Sue Wilson died that night, and in total 173 lives were taken in 15 major fires across the state.
The enormity of the loss is indescribable, as is the ongoing impact on the people affected – from those who lost property to the 210 firefighters who responded to the Beechworth-Mudgegonga fire.
Ten years on to the day, residents in the North East and across the country will have these people in their thoughts.
Clinical psychologist Rob Gordon, in speaking to Mudgegonga residents on Tuesday night, urged them to speak about their emotions, but also to be mindful that everyone has a different experience.
“A lot of people in fire-affected areas don’t even want to think about it and get quite annoyed there’s this big commemoration,” he said.
“People talk about the idea of bouncing back – if we dropped a bunch of balls from the roof, they would all bounce in different directions.
“We’re all going to deal with it differently depending on what our life experiences are.
“We should find a better word than ‘recovery’, because you can’t get back to where you were before.”
Dr Gordon, who has 30 years’ experience in trauma and natural disaster, has spoken twice before in Mudgegonga about Black Saturday.
His presentation this week focused on the ongoing adjustment for the communities.
“It seems forever since it happened and in another way it seems just yesterday,” he said.
“That has to do with the intensity of the experience, but also in the way that the fabric of our lives is disrupted.
“When we have this disruption all of that is swept away and replaced by improvised activity … and when it settles you could go back to automatic mode, but do we actually still feel the same?
“The ‘recovery’ comes down to how people reconnect.”
Up to 40 per cent of the population of areas affected by such fires is turned over, as for many people, they feel the need to start again elsewhere.
Dr Gordon said getting to the roots of why people are experiencing certain emotions was important in moving on.
“When you come out of an event like this you have imprints of tremendously powerful emotions,” he said.
“Many of us are helped by sharing stories.
“For the people I’ve worked with, it never goes away, but it doesn’t have to be distressing all the time.
“They keep asking ‘what does it mean for me now as I’m moving on?’ and opening this safe relationship to it.”
Dr Gordon said getting back to fundamental goals and values, and sometimes rediscovering new ones, was a key to building resilience.
“We’ve lost other options we didn’t want to lose, and there’s grief in that, but at some point if we can accept we are on the other side of the watershed, let’s think about what we can do now and how to help each other,” he said.
- For support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Gateway Health on (02) 5723 2000, or headspace Albury-Wodonga on (02) 6055 9555.