February 16th 1983

February 16th 1983—The Age newspaper

‘Emergency services were stretched beyond their limits as more than a dozen major fires around Adelaide and in the mid-north and south-east of the State took their toll in the State’s worst fire in memory.’

That day was always going to be very dangerous. 45 degrees or more in many places, and fierce gusting winds made for a freakishly high fire danger. And it turned to catastrophe, in the lushest parts of the state, the Adelaide Hills, Mid-North and the South East, where the grass, bush and trees were enough fuel to make infernos.

I’d driven from Adelaide to Murray Bridge, along the South Eastern Freeway, and I was scanning the horizon for smoke. None so far. But the car was being buffeted by the cross-winds, and I was very pleased to have air-conditioning. Two hours later, 7 people were to die near here, fleeing in their cars, just too late to make it out of the Adelaide Hills.

I got out in Murray Bridge to find I had to lean against the wind, and I was shocked by the heat that made it hard to breathe. In the office, still not knowing if there were any fires, I decided to take a look at the State Disaster Plan. I had a vague feeling I had an official role in it. And there it was—as Regional Director I was the Functional Services Liaison Officer (FSLO) for the whole South East of the State if required. I had no idea what that meant, so I was poring over a bulky pack of materials when my deputy, Malcolm, came in to tell me there were big fires in the Adelaide Hills and the South East.

I rang the State Operations Centre, and asked what they wanted me to do. ‘Get to the South East ASAP, and start coordinating relief efforts.’ Malcolm and I jumped in a car, and set off on what would usually be the four-hour trip, which we managed in three. About an hour from Mount Gambier, the biggest town in that region, we entered the fire zone. At first it was just smouldering bush and grass lands, but we were soon in big tree territory, and there the damage was total. Fences, sheds, vehicles and houses near the road were all smouldering ruins. Most distressingly, we saw cattle and sheep that had survived, but were badly burnt, standing on the black land, surrounded by those already dead. For the next day or two, it was the job of farmers and police to shoot the survivors and organise great pits for mass graves.

In Mount Gambier, I quickly found out I wasn’t needed yet. Many fires were still out of control, and while all those who died were already gone, the danger was still very real. The whole focus that afternoon and evening was on rescuing people and fighting fires. It wasn’t till the next morning that I was able to tour the assembly points, where hundreds of people had slept, while rumours swirled of whole towns being consumed. I could see immediately the locals were doing very well without a State Disaster Plan, much as country people have always done. Food and clothing was being found, and volunteers were looking after old people and taking the children to school while their parents started to re-build their lives. Then I got distracted by the politics of disaster. It turned out that the top brass in Adelaide had told all visiting dignitaries to contact the FSLO—me.

So, the Premier of South Australia, his Minister of Agriculture and some very senior public servants were coming. But the Governor, who has a largely ceremonial role, was also on his way, and to top that off, the Prime Minister of Australia was about to land at the airport. He was in the midst of a political crisis and it looked like the end of his career might be weeks away, so being seen on the front lines of disaster was too good to pass up. Accompanying this over-supply of VIPs would be a large number of reporters and cameramen. The minders of all these people were contacting me about where to start their tour. I wanted to get them all in the same place, the main assembly point, so lots of public pack-patting and offers of condolence together with photographs could happen at the one time, but the Prime Minister’s man said he wanted the PM and his wife to visit a place where there would be no-one else hogging the attention.

So off we went to Tarpeena, a tiny town to the North, where half the houses were gone, and a couple of people had died. The PM, Malcolm Fraser, was a huge man, nearly two metres tall, and his wife towered over me. I arrived in time to see a phalanx of reporters lead by these two giraffe-like figures into the hall where volunteers and survivors had gathered. Mr Fraser hurried around the room, shaking a few hands, then demanded to know if the fires near here were still burning. So, while his wife Tammy stayed and sat with the locals, doing a great job and winning my admiration, I and all the reporters had to follow the large white government vehicle containing the PM to find the fire-front.

On a small dirt track we were stopped by a fire-truck, with blackened, weary men staring at all these cars and people, obviously unimpressed, as the chief explained that we could go no farther. Just then a radio call alerted them that the fire was turning back and coming our way. People started to get back in their cars, and reverse out, but the PM insisted on photographs, and strode over to lean on a fence, staring imperially towards the building smoke-clouds. A few reporters got their snaps and got out as quickly as they could, but I was the FSLO, a job reserved for hardy types, so I couldn’t desert my leader. Mine was the last car out, and I should confess here that it turned out to be a false alarm in any case.

Mercifully the PM had to return to Canberra to try to save his political skin (to no avail), so it was back to Mount Gambier, where the other dignitaries were gathering at the assembly point. Again, there was no real need for me, except to spend time with all the social workers and others who worked for my department. I was going to be a glorified tour guide. The Governor approached me, and asked me to join him in his car, as it had been decided we would go to Millicent, 40 kilometres to the West, to show support for victims and volunteers there. I set the Millicent end up with a couple of phone calls. When it came time to go, protocol demanded that the vice-regal car be in front of the Premier’s, with all others to follow. I counted fourteen cars behind us as I got into the front seat of a brand-new Rolls Royce. The Governor was new in his job, a recently retired general, and as he shook hands and introduced his wife to me, he said ‘Isn’t she a beauty?’ meaning, I quickly realised, the Rolls. ‘Brand new this week. I can’t tell you how fast we were going coming here, I’d get into trouble, but she goes like a rocket.’

In a Rolls, it really is so quiet you can hear the clock ticking, which is why the chauffeur had to lean in close to whisper ‘How do I get to Millicent from here?’ Now, I knew the main road, but we were in the back blocks of Mount Gambier, and I had been following other cars all day, not thinking about the route. I took a punt, and got it wrong. We did find the main road eventually, but not until a long procession of cars lead by the Rolls had weaved slowly through the streets of East Mount Gambier for about fifteen minutes. Puzzled locals gazed at us, wondering, I’m sure, about our motives in inspecting these suburbs on such a day.

From Millicent, the Governor left to go back to the Adelaide Hills fire sites, so I caught a ride with some bureaucrats. We took a side trip to visit a few properties that had been destroyed. We pulled up near one, where we could see a man, a woman I think was his wife, and a police officer talking, sitting on a verandah beside the smouldering remains of a house. The Premier, John Bannon, asked us all to stay with the cars, forbad photos, and walked alone across the black paddock to the group. For the next fifteen minutes or so we waited while he spoke quietly with them, arms around the man’s shoulder. I never felt prouder of a politician.

As he was returning, we heard a loud noise, a sort of thunderous groaning, and we all turned to watch as a huge gum tree, most likely hundreds of years old, began to lean, then to fall. It had been burning inside for more than 24 hours, and had no strength left. The ground shook as the main trunk hit, accompanied by many sharp explosions as the major branches snapped. We were all a bit stunned and so sad; it was like watching an elephant die, finally felled by a fire that would never have been so ferocious before the nearby commercial pine forests were planted. The fire-storm created was so hot that people saw flock of birds explode into flames in the air. These ancient gum trees, so majestic, were lost in large numbers that day, something nature on her own would never have allowed to happen.

Once I saw off all these visitors, I started talking with the various groups that were at work with mopping up and welfare tasks. I could see that some people were getting fragile, and frustrated by lack of coordination, so I assumed my FSLO rank and called a meeting of the heads of all agencies for that evening. It was very productive, but harrowing. I watched a young police inspector with old mans eyes describe the forensic work his team had to complete so that identifications could be certain. I felt the undercurrent of panic when the meteorologist told us the weather was hotting up again. And I heard about the apparent impossibility of getting the immediate assistance payments that the Government had announced. I decided to make that my job.

The good side of this was the hugging, the offers of cooperation across agencies and the accurate information about areas of most urgent need. There was a strong feeling of pulling together that gave new energy to very tired people. I felt I’d actually done something really useful.

Next morning, I found the problem with the assistance money was that the Commonwealth Government, which was covering half the cost, was insisting that every person asking for the money had to fill in a specific form together with presenting ID, forms that no-one could find. I rang the Operations Centre, to try to get this squashed, but no dice. ‘We have to minimise the chances of fraud’ I was told. The money was there, in Post Offices just waiting, but no-one could get it. I established that the form did exist, but that because it was so rarely used, it was most likely the only stocks were in the main Adelaide Post Office. Five hours drive away.

Then an officer came on the phone, also a David, who I knew from a previous job. He asked me if I could authorise him to get the air force to fly the forms to Mount Gambier in an F111 fighter jet. It would only take 40 minutes flying time. I airily agreed to this military deployment, and David rang me back excitedly a few minutes later to say it was all go, and he would be a passenger carrying thousand of the forms. I’m sure he was wetting himself, and it was pitiful to hear his voice when I rang back a few minutes later to tell him that a stock had just been found in Mount Gambier after all. No F111’s required. ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ ‘Yes, great idea on your part, and thanks for all your efforts. The main thing is we can start helping people now’. But I’m guessing he thought it was the worst ending ever to a boys’ toy saga.

The next couple of days were full-on. I made a quick trip to Kalangadoo, a small town terribly damaged by the fires. With dead cows and sheep still lying everywhere on blackened ground, it was like some dystopian nightmare. My main purpose was to check that the financial assistance scheme was working, but I also sat down with some locals who only two days ago had been huddled together on the school oval as the fire raged around them. This included about 30 school children. I could see there were quite a few who would need to talk this out in the coming days.

Then I flew back to Adelaide in a small plane to put my case for a longer-term relief effort. There were several hundred people in deep trouble. Most of the local helpers, whether volunteering or paid, were doing wonderful work, but they were needed back in their day jobs soon. Together with a few of my local staff, led by Liz Moriarty, we had cooked up a scheme to recruit up to 40 locals with the right skills and networks to work as ‘bushfire relief workers’ for two or three months. Several people wanted to know how we would find that many social workers, psychologists and other health professionals who would agree to work around Mount Gambier. Liz and I agreed that was not who we were after. Watching the police, the fire-fighters, the teachers, the shop-keepers, insurance agents, stock and station merchants and farmers who had stepped up in the first couple of days was inspiring. These people had the skill-sets we wanted, and we wanted to pay them their normal salary to be seconded to roles that many of them were already playing. My Departmental boss, Ian Cox, and the Premier backed the concept immediately, and I went back the next day armed with a more or less open budget.

It wasn’t an easy week. My staff were tiring out, and I was a bit frazzled myself. One thing on my mind was how difficult I found it to persuade my four-year-old son that I wasn’t going to be burnt in the terrible fires he saw on the news every night. While I was in Adelaide we talked for a while, sitting in his sandpit, and I wasn’t sure he believed me when I said there was no risk to me. A little boy you love staring straight into your eyes, wanting that assurance, stays with you, and I did get upset in private.

I think there were seven funerals in about three days, several for friends of my staff. But we were all delighted with the enthusiasm for our scheme, and we soon had more applicants than we could handle. As we predicted, many of the people who had been in the field in the first couple of days wanted to continue helping their friends and neighbours. Our endorsement of their rightness made us many friends in the South East.

There was so much need out there, and we had most of our new workers on the road within a week. Insurance claims, new clothes, loan cars, credit cards replaced, electricity re-connected, council rates and bank repayments deferred, fencing contractors found—the list was endless. But they were splendid. I was so impressed with these people, just getting on with it, leaning in or giving space depending on need, finding practical solutions, busting red tape in ways that never seem possible except in a disaster. It reinforced an ongoing aspect of my way of working in health and welfare settings. I didn’t believe, and I still don’t, that qualifications, quality standards, discipline guidelines or any of the other planks of ‘professionalism’ bring any guarantee that the right help in the right place will actually happen. There is often a smug certainty in that world of professionalism, and certainty has never been my companion. In that sense, even though I have social work qualifications, I wasn’t really a member of any of the professional tribes.

These relief workers were helping their neighbours, so they started without detachment, but with love. They knew how to listen, and once it was clear what people wanted, they knew better than most how to make it happen. A few of them had lost their houses in bush-fires past, and it was time for them to give back what their community had done for them. None of this is in the professional training hand-books for any discipline. In the years since I have been lucky enough to work with hundreds of ‘para-professionals’ who have come from all walks of life, especially to work in mental health services, and I remain convinced that the basic attributes of effective caring may be enhanced by more education, but are never born there. It’s a view that has put me right in it more than a few times with health professionals, but c’est la vie.

As the weeks went by, I got to visit most of the townships affected by the fire, and to hear many stories, some awful, some hilarious I’ll relate just one of those.

Two men shared a house in the pine forest near Nangwarry. They were blasting contractors, so had a good supply of TNT at their place. When it was clear the fire was getting close (it was from them that I heard of flocks of parrots exploding in the sky) they decided it was too dangerous to drive with the TNT in the back of the utility. They stored it in the fridge, and got out of there. The next day they returned, not knowing what damage the fire had done. About 400 metres from the house, on the far side of a small hill, one of them said ‘We are in deep shit.’ ‘Why’ says his mate. ‘Because we just passed the fridge door on the side of the road.’

There was no single piece of their house left, that one person couldn’t easily pick up. Because the fire itself was so incredibly noisy, no-one had heard what must have been a mighty explosion. I heard that the insurance company paid up. That must have been a wonderful story they concocted.

Within a couple of weeks most of my job was done. Liz Moriarty managed the bushfire relief workers in addition to her usual role as District Officer, and spoke with me often about new bits of red tape she thought I could help with. Six weeks later, two months after the fire, we all agreed the relief workers could go back to their usual jobs. Of course, a few victims needed ongoing help, especially those who had survive great trauma and loss. That was arranged though the normal channels. But the relief workers weren’t looking for a pat on the back for their bit. They didn’t even want a wind-up party. They just melted back into the local woodwork, went back to their usual jobs, having achieved everything from preventing suicides to getting the phone re-connected. It was my privilege to be involved, to see how building on a community’s strengths, rather that blowing into town with an ‘expert’ team, made so much more sense.

I went to a meeting called by the Premier, to review how government services were responding to the aftermath of the fires. In the Adelaide Hills and the Mid-North, the largely health-professional workforce was not yet fully in place, was costing nearly twice as much per worker to put in the field and administer, and the managers were already reporting ‘professional burn-out’ as a significant problem. I hope I didn’t sound smug when I reported from the South East that we had completed our work, a month ahead of time, and well below the expected cost. All of us, my staff, the relief workers, the other agencies that bent over backwards to help us, and even I, the FSLO, had done a job to be proud of.

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