I was recently contacted by a high school teacher in Western Australia, who said her year nine class was doing a project on the 2009 Victorian Bushfires, and having found my own diary entries on the ordeal, asked if I would be kind enough to read and respond to their reflections, as somebody who was in the thick of things.
I was so honoured to be approached, that I offered to publish their reflections, as a tribute to the strength and ongoing support of Australians nation-wide, as we prepare for another summer of unknowns. (Please stay tuned at the end for my own response). Here is what they wrote:
The Victorian Bushfires
During Term Four of 2009 I have been teaching a class of Year Nine girls at Merredin Senior High School in the wheat belt of Western Australia. Using the curriculum as my guide, the students needed to be introduced to the concepts of how to analyse still images. We use a ‘symbolic, written and technical’ code system where the students break down what they are viewing to then apply meaning to the image. To guide them through this process I collected a range of images to discuss in class.
One of those images was Sam (the koala) getting her much needed drink of water during the Victorian bushfires.
That one image sent our class onto a different path of discussion as, together, we learnt more about the devastation and destruction of the fires. I was able to contribute some emotion to the discussion as I lived in Canberra in 2002 when fire ravaged that city. What amazed me with my Year Nine girls was that they were interested, showed compassion and had a desire to want to know more.
Rather than write an essay about a collection of random images, we adopted the ‘Victorian Bushfires’ as our theme and began to look for more images. That was when I came across the website, ‘The Professional Hobo’—that contained an amazing blow-by-blow account of living through the Victorian fires. Again, my students were captivated.
So, we decided on another change in direction. We wanted ‘The Professional Hobo’ to know that people on the other side of Australia were still affected by what had happened back in February. We hadn’t lived through the fires directly, but we were trying to understand the pain, loss, grief and guilt that so many people are still feeling.
What we have created is a whole class essay – where every student has contributed a paragraph – where together we have cried in class and unified our work to symbolise how those communities affected by the fires came together in support of one another. This is our essay…
FROM THE ASHES CAME COMMUNITY SPIRIT
A few weeks into Term Four Mrs Attree came into the class and told us that we would be studying still images. She showed us some photos and one was of Sam (the koala) from the Victorian bushfires. Most of us sighed when we saw the picture. We felt sad as we thought about the poor animals that suffered. When we started asking Mrs Attree questions, we couldn’t stop. We really wanted to know how serious the fires were and what happened. Mrs Attree showed us more images from the bushfires as well as clips and news footage. We were all interested and stunned by what we were seeing. It was sad and heartbreaking to realise what people had gone through. We then looked at a website (‘The Professional Hobo’), where a lady had recorded what was happening as the fires were burning. We began writing a whole class essay to send to Nora. By having us write together, to create one document, we are hoping that it symbolises how the communities affected by the fires came together. -(Chevie)
The devastation of the fires is likely to be forever remembered as a series of facts: they occurred in February to March of 2009; more than 170 people perished; over 2000 homes were destroyed; countless numbers of animals were burnt and their habitat left as ash. Our class is now familiar with the language surrounding the devastation of fires. We also understand that despite these harsh facts and sad language, there was generosity. Those affected by the fires were inundated with donations, help, offers and a shoulder when they needed it the most. We have learnt that Australians pull together when they need to. -(Shanice)
It was actually horrible to see what the people affected by the Victorian bushfires had to go through. To try to comprehend the loss of homes, loss of life and the loss of wildlife and pets is very difficult. What is easy to comprehend and heartwarming to realise, is how many people who had lost everything helped others. The community spirit at that time was phenomenal. -(Ashlei)
As our class was looking at some images from the fires, there was one image that showed a house surrounded by burnt bush land. The house was virtually untouched by the fire. We then learnt that many whose homes had survived feel guilt. It is amazing when one house in a whole row of homes in a town may have ‘survived’ when all others were destroyed. But there should be no guilt felt, it’s not about blame or fault, so there should be no guilt either. -(Lou-Anna)
I have been looking at the picture of a house that survived the fires. It shows how close the fire got to it and how lucky they were that the fire spared their home. If it was my house I would be very glad that it survived. It would have been scary for everyone, but the one who would have been scared the most would have been my little sister. Poor Patricia would have been scared out of her pants! -(Sarah R.)
We were searching through some photos from the fires and came across one of a man standing where his house used to be. It had been burnt to the ground and he was standing in rubble and ash. That man could never have imagined that this would have happened. Our class had never felt like this before; we couldn’t comprehend what he must have been thinking or feeling. We all tried to understand his sadness and possibly his anger. I imagine he would have searched through that ash to try to find something that he could call his own – something that had survived the fire. -(Brooke)
I felt really sorry and sad when learning about the stories of the Victorian fires. It was very emotional for us in the class – let alone those who lost everything. I feel like we have so much compared to those who lost everything. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to rebuild your home. -(Chevie)
It was really sad when we found out how many people had lost their lives in such a short period of time. When we were watching the news footage and looking at other images – everyone felt pain just seeing the photos. No one could imagine how hard it would have been to hurriedly pack a few possessions in their car and flee. Nor could we imagine how difficult it must have been for the firefighters; those amazing men and women. -(Grace)
These bushfires were a tragedy that affected many people. What we hadn’t realised was that there were so many different fires being fought all over the state of Victoria. Like a broom, they swept through whole townships destroying everything. There was also a sense of generosity when everyone donated money and items—that was heartwarming. -(Bianca & Rachael)
We felt saddened by all the images we saw of the wildlife affected by the fires. One image showed the burnt foot of a koala, where some small parts of pink flesh were visible through its blackened skin. Most of the animals that survived the fires and were healthy enough to return to their habitat couldn’t return. There was nothing to return to. Most of the bush land that was destroyed is now growing back – we hope that it returns to a flourishing bush land filled with wildlife and the sounds of nature. -(Ellie & Samantha)
Innocent wildlife fell victim to Mother Nature’s fury. These animals watched helplessly as their homes and habitats were engulfed by fire. Sam the koala became a symbol at the time of how animals were suffering. She was found by a firefighter after Sam’s home had been destroyed. She had been so desperate for water that she had drunk straight out of the firefighter’s bottle. Sam later passed away – but her story is one that was repeated throughout the Victorian fires in February and March. With so many animals suffering, there were many Victorian services (RSPCA, private veterinarians and nurses, animal shelters) who worked very hard to help those injured animals. So many animals perished and many are still recovering, but how people came to the aid of these animals is a perfect example of how the community came together to address the need. -(Magdalene & Jodie)
We now realise now why our parents were so stunned back in February, as they were learning the facts about what was happening in Victoria. We have learnt that so many who had lost everything kept fighting for their community and friends. We were amazed by the generosity of others as more than $3 million was raised for the victims. While this was evidence that Australians look after one another – it’s a situation that we would never want to see again. -(Zoe F.)
Over the last few weeks my classmates and I have been learning about the Victorian bushfires through analysing images taken during and after the fires. It’s so sad to think of the deaths and loss that occurred. Yet it’s heartwarming to know that over two thousand Red Cross volunteers helped out the people who lost their homes. It’s also heartwarming to recognise that the whole nation helped by giving clothing and making donations – letting the victims know that we care. -(Zoe B.)
The devastation caused by the fires left everyone mourning and in pain. The community spirit and the amazing generosity from around the world helped ease some of the pain. It was heartwarming to learn how people had helped each other at this time of need. I was especially impressed with one image I have seen where a shop owner put a sign at the front of the shop telling people to “Take what you need” over a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. This was extremely kind and showed the world what a true Australian is like in a time of crisis. -(Shannon)
As much as we’ve tried with our short entries in this document, we understand that no words can really express how awful the Victorian bushfires were. Nobody deserves to go through that experience. The wave of pain over Australia at that time will never be forgotten. The spirit and strength of Australians will also never be forgotten. Please stay safe during this coming summer and support our firefighting heroes – it may be a job to them – but it’s amazing to us. -(Sarah BB)
This is a beautiful collection of reflections from a year nine class, coming to terms with a national disaster that happened thousands of kilometers from their homes, but very close to every Australian’s heart. To have the courage and empathy to put yourselves in the shoes of somebody who experienced something so dramatic and reflect on it is an amazing thing, and is the starting point for great humanitarian efforts and positive changes.
I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t lose anybody I loved, nor any property during the fires. But there are very few degrees of separation here between the lucky ones and not so lucky ones; we all feel the effects. Thank you so much, Merredin Senior High School Year Nine girls, for your thoughts, efforts, and sympathy for those affected by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires. It is the positive energy and efforts of people like you that will help fire survivors continue to persevere in their efforts to rebuild.