the flame trees

[I wasn’t sure about blogging about last night, because it feels a little invasive, but i was asked to by a couple of people from the community, so here it is… Apologies for the length.]

We drove on up the mountain last night to Kinglake West, which is home to the Kinglake West relief centre, which services people affected by the fires all along the mountain ridge [for some of the story, click here]. It’s only just over an hour from the centre of Melbourne, but even so it used to be dense forest through there – tall, tall gum trees. It’s now burnt completely clean. The only distinguishable shapes are tree trunks, everything else is simply ash. You can only tell where houses were by the occasional piece of corrugated iron. Where in most bushfires the grass would have started to grow again, in this one even the potential of new life was burnt. The fire was too hot and relentless. It’s just grey and black. Terrible and grotesquely beautiful, if such a thing is possible.

The relief centre is being hosted by the Uniting Church in Kinglake West – a tiny church community in a tiny weatherboard church – which survived, although the school over the road was badly damaged, and the block next door also. A large marquee, which seated quite a few hundred people last night, has been installed in what used to be the carpark next to the church. Meals are provided, and the church houses financial and other counsellors from the local Uniting Care agency [which donations to the Share appeal will help fund!] and a room that stores supplies [toothpaste, nappies, clothes, stationery] for anyone to take as they need. Hundreds of houses were destroyed in this district, a lot of people are staying on their property in temporary accommodation while they wait to rebuild.

We ‘babysat’ last night while a community meeting was happening. There would have been around 50 or 60 kids around; we probably had around 30 doing stuff with us in the church at any one time. We kept the activities really simple – julie suggested mandalas, which we photocopied and laid around the room with crayons and pencils. It was an inspired idea – the kids spent, literally, hours on them – they’d colour one in, and then they’d colour in another, and when it came time to leave they’d ask if they could take some home with them to do there… One young person – she would have been 16 or 17 – was sitting at the table for ages doing them. When she was onto her fifth or sixth she said to me ‘This is so relaxing. It’s very zen’. ‘Funny, that’, I said.

They were such an easy group of kids to be with. We kept it low key – the mandalas, toys, board games, dvds… One mother came in to see what her kids were doing. She said to me, with tears in her eyes, ‘This is just what they needed. This is church’. I doubt she even knew that i, or the other adults, were part of the church. I got the sense she wasn’t talking about what we were doing there, or what the church was doing for them; church was the kids being with each other.

I was struck for a while at how much the kids were talking about best friends. They’d introduce themselves to me: ‘I’m Chloe, and this is my best friend Holly…’. I know girls do that, but not to this extent. And then one little girl – she was six – said to me, half way through a conversation, in the same chatty voice, ‘Neve was my best friend. But that was before the fire came. She died.’ And as I took a deep breath, she continued, ‘The fire, it was so annoying‘. And then she and her little brother started talking, animatedly, about his venture into kindergarten this year… These little girls know, in a way that i can barely begin to imagine, that best friends are a fragile, precious thing. And they know also resilience too.

I can’t imagine how hard it would be to be church in that kind of situation, but the little uniting church congregation there is doing it so well, in collaboration with the UnitingCare agencies. The people who are part of the church community were affected by fires too, so their worship isn’t about sharing sympathy, it’s about sharing pain. 50 people came to worship there last Sunday – which doesn’t sound much, but it’s a tiny town, and a tiny church. 50 people would have meant standing room only.

They’ve asked us to go back again next friday night, to do more of the same – and then we’ll talk with the community about whether they’d like things to continue beyond this in some form. This is the only place for the kids to gather. There is no other place for them just to hang together.

It was said to me often last night that the biggest fear people have is that melbourne – and all melbourne represents – will forget about them; get impatient with what needs to be done, etc. Houses can’t be rebuilt yet, because the government has to work out what the planning regulations will be. There are still police roadblocks. The media is interested in the sensational, not the sheer hard work of getting up each day and living within a charred landscape. It’s going to take years to rebuild. And it will never be the same. Money and other support is part of it. Much more important seems to be the willingness to listen to the stories – the hard bits of the stories, not just the dramatic bits.

The sharpest ironies always come when you’re least prepared. At the end of the night, Emily was organising a dance competition with the last of the young girls before their parents gathered them up. There were about 8 of them, taking it in turns to dance to those hits from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, so faithfully provided by Gold FM radio… I was humming along, subconsciously to one of the songs, until i realised what the words were that i was singing: ‘the flame trees will blind the weary driver, and there’s nothing else could set fire to this town…’. If only.


  1. It’s a funny coincidence but I’ve been playing that old Cold Chisel album a lot lately and wondering if there was any relelvance..!

    So many great insights in that post Cheryl – thanks so much for sharing it with us. I can imagine the fear tat would set in after the drama is over and the hard work of rebuilding begins. It must be a lonely time out there, with worse to come.

    “We shared some history, this town and I
    And I can’t stop that long forgotton feeling of her…”

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. From here in Sydney the media have stopped reporting what is happening in VIC. I have heard that in these events UCA is in for the long haul – your post certainly signifies that. The image of sharing pain not sharing sympathy was especially moving. Thank you.

  3. Hi Cheryl – I was given a link to your blog from a UCA friend and really enjoy reading your posts!

    I hope that from the fires some good will come – I hope communities experience the love that comes from having to depend on one another. Amongst overwhelming devastation is often overwhelming feelings of love and gratitude.. I hope they experience the grace to see themselves (and God?) in a struggling stranger. I pray these moments are cherished, not as a ‘silver-lining’ side effect of tragedy but as love infiltrating and defeating the darkness.
    I pray, as you do, that we won’t all forget along with the media.
    Thanks for putting such inspirational and insightful stuff on your blog 🙂

  4. Kel

    art therapy at its best
    mandala making with the kids
    if i only lived an hours drive, away I’d be there with you

  5. Kaye

    something about that song .. I wept silent tears listening to that song driving down through Flowerdale on Monday.

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