News

Empty words and a lost childhood as bushfire rages through Upper Murray

By Tara Whitsed

For the first time in my life, I did not celebrate New Year’s.

I did not wave my hands in the air and cheer "Happy New Year" as the clock struck midnight.

Instead, I had my head buried in the VicEmergency app.

A bushfire raged its way through the beautiful landscape I grew up in. The Upper Murray was alight.

Earlier that day I had lost contact with my family members, who were scattered in towns throughout the area.

Corryong had barely been saved and Tintaldra — my home town — had narrowly escaped the raging beast that had consumed everything in its path since it began on December 28.

In a matter of one afternoon, the warnings had been upgraded from a simple ‘Advice’ message to ‘Evacuate Now’ as I desperately phoned my brother to tell them to leave.

Perhaps it is pure attachment to your home, or a disbelief that things would get as bad as they did, but my family decided to stay as the fire tore across the hills behind them into the Bluff and on to Cudgewa, reportedly taking out up to 15 homes.

My New Year’s plans were cancelled and my partner and I nervously made the nine-hour journey home to Euroa from Newcastle, passing through fire territory ourselves.

It was quite impossible not to, with much of NSW already alight well before Christmas and several other fires starting along the journey home since we had been through days prior.

A home destroyed in Cudgewa. Picture: Joshua Collings

Our attention was torn between my own family suffering in the Upper Murray and so many others across East Gippsland and the NSW South Coast who were facing scenes that can only be described as apocalyptic.

As we drove, it was impossible not to think that our country was literally burning in front of our eyes, as we continued to monitor the VicEmergency and RFS Fires Near Me apps on our phones.

I knew we could monitor the activity but, by that stage, our family could not — with all communication to the Upper Murray being lost on the morning of December 31.

Technology: fantastic until Mother Nature tears it down. Then, we are lost.

Community members who have been able to get some semblance of internet access have been sharing stories of absolute resilience.

My Facebook feed has been filled with videos and images of scorched land just metres away from homes, saved only by residents’ own efforts and those of the incredible emergency services.

As I write this, I have heard word my family are due to be evacuated via a convoy and hope to speak to them soon.

It has been truly eye-opening to see how incredibly hard the services have worked throughout the entire ordeal, with one RFS firefighter, Samuel McPaul, tragically dying in a freak fire-storm accident in Jingellic — where this beast began.

What has been the most terrifying part of watching these scenes play out from afar, is the lack of contact and feeling incredibly helpless, unable to even offer your family words of support.

I will conclude this column with a quote from our country’s ‘leader’, Scott Morrison.

The Prime Minister said the following earlier this year when he responded to Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech at the United Nations.

“I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well,” he said.

“I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”

Where is the pristine environment that I so luckily enjoyed during my childhood now, Prime Minister?

It has burned to the ground.

There are several ways to support the victims of the fires. You can donate to Red Cross and there are several drop-off depots for supplies in the Albury/Wodonga area. Visit emergency.vic.gov.au for more information