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Burnt sausages, gingerbread and fruitcake

LEANING AGAINST THE rear of my crew's fire truck, I open my lunch pack and pull out a sandwich. We'd been on patrol in the hills above Marysville to black-out and check on containment lines. Dirty and tiring work, but a picnic when you compare it to what our colleagues faced when they fought on the frontline of the vicious, devastating and unpredictable Black Saturday fires. Thank heavens I wasn't one of them.

As a member of rhe Country Fire Authority's Fire Brigade on the south-west coast, I found myself wearing my journalist hat to report on the Victorian bushfires from Whittlesea, the Monday after Black Saturday. The next day I put aside my camera and notebook and joined a crew patrolling around the Kinglake area.

That day our mission was to check properties, reassure residents and continue the unrelenting blacking out. CFA has a marvelous culture of mateship; everyone really looks after each other. As the least experienced fire-fighter, they made me sit in the front of the tanker and watched me to make sure I was coping with the confronting landscape. In return, I got drinks, fruit or biscuits to help keep the guys going each time we returned to draft more water from the carriers opposite the Kinglake pub. It was a long day full of varied encounters. Near the council offices, a man bitterly abused me, accusing the CFA of not saving his home.

A woman I comforted cried tears like hailstones as she bleakly recounted losses. Another man hailed our truck to offer us tea, coffee or the use of his bathroom. We drove along roads where houses that survived sported hand-made signs; ‘All ok here,' says one. Later we passed roads blocked by police – there were still bodies to be removed from what were now referred to as crime-scenes. Every single emergency worker I met – CFA, Police, Army, Red Cross, SES, Salvos, St John's ambulance, council, you name it – was doing an amazing job, many in the face of immense personal loss and grief.

In the early days of the bushfire aftermath, it seemed that food for emergency services crews – and survivors – came from many sources: from the Salvation Army running a twenty-four hour canteen at Whittlesea to dispense empathy and kindness along with the chicken casserole, to a local services club setting up a free barbecue for all and sundry at Kinglake. Strangers brought cakes, retailers dropped off fruit, drinks or chocolate and wholesalers donated food by the crate.

Later when I was assigned to strike teams at Alexandra, a professional caterer from Mansfield did a fantastic job keeping us fed and watered at the staging ground. If you wanted vegetarian meals or needed wheat-free lunches, they did everything they could to accommodate you.

By this stage, the food all tasted the same to me. Weary and a bit numb, I chewed my way through one sandwich, throwing the remains to an inquisitive and grateful parrot. Around me, other fire-fighters from my region and interstate sat alone or in small groups as they ate, our eyes looking up, our nostrils full of smoke and hoping in our hearts that the devastation would soon be over. One man pulled out a small harmonica from his pocket and the bluesy notes sounded clearly amongst the pungent smell of charcoal and eucalyptus. It seemed that it was only when you stopped for a meal break that you had some quiet time or allowed yourself to reflect on the surreal landscape that surrounded us. Once you were on the truck, you were too busy looking up for falling timber, out for your mates or around for other hazards as you got on with the job.

But it was the little dollops that made the biggest difference. The man I met at Whittlesea who dropped everything in his business in Melbourne to offer whatever help he could, and ended up running a barbecue outside the community centre. Working with him was a man desperately waiting for news about his family. Every time he handed a slightly burnt sausage dripping in artificial tomato sauce cradled in a slice of high-fibre white bread, he gave a small smile. I don't know who felt better, the giver or the receiver. One night our crew slept in Army tents at the sports ground and the Red Cross gals from Corryong told us to help ourselves from their food supplies. In the mess were police, ambulance officers, DSE, SES, Salvos, Red Cross and St John's workers from all over the country.

One breakfast I met a couple of leviathan volunteer firemen from a remote part of South Australia who wore big white cowboy hats and spoke in gentle tones. Eating lunch in the smoky hills I heard stories from efficient and experienced NSW paramedics who thought nothing of hanging off a wire in fatal storm conditions to rescue yacht crews. Dinner often meant meeting CFA members who could recall the terrors of fighting the Ash Wednesday fires a quarter of a century earlier. While meal time conversations naturally centre on the latest bushfire news, talk about the days' tucker was also popular – and a good way to have a laugh when they were few and far between. One night, I heard some firefighters talking excitedly about the range of ice-cream toppings available for dessert. Another morning I saw a volunteer fire-fighter hovering indecisively over the cereal packets; it turns out he's a cornflakes man and had never tried half the varieties on offer here. ‘Think I'll live dangerously,' he joked as he selected a bright packet that promised a range of nutritional wonders. He was a stalwart member from a tiny one-truck shed brigade whose overalls and laconic conversation proclaimed his long membership and experience. Later that day we talk about ACT fireman David Balfour who died on his truck when he was struck by a falling tree. In my CFA kitbag, as advised by one of my brigade friends, I had some dried dates, apricots and lemon and ginger tea-bags. They were shared around when we were waiting to go on a patrol one afternoon and went down a treat.

On a patrol outside Alexandra, when members of the local Whanregarwen Fire Brigade learned we were in the area, they radioed to offer us the use of their facilities, including an electric kettle. Bless them, being able to make the tea and coffee was a bonus. Later I took a photo of the crew in front of the brigade shed and one of our guys who is in the business, offers to frame it so we can send it to Whanregarwen as thank-you. (Some months later when I dropped it off they put on a special morning tea to celebrate.) That afternoon, a couple, long-time local CFA members, offered us some fresh eggs. The next day I realise it's Shrove Tuesday – if I'd thought of it earlier, I could have made pancakes.

 

ON THE LAST strike team I was assigned to, I was the scribe or penciller – taking notes of the important conversations such as weather and fire reports, incident details, directions and instructions between the section commander, strike team leader, crew leaders and the operational staff at the local Incident Control Centre. I'm in the back of a four-wheel drive, surrounded by gear and listening to conversations percolating from mobile phones and two radios, writing furiously and as legibly as I can. While the vehicle negotiates steep logging tracks, they take humidity readings and check on smoke sightings and I decide that it's my business to ensure that everyone's kept hydrated, has enough to eat – and wore sunblock. So I'd grab a couple of extra lunch packs before we headed out and made sure that the esky in the back of the car was full of ice, water and energy drinks. One lunch went to a mapmaker we met at an incident at a plantation near Buxton, another to a weary strike team member who didn't eat enough breakfast.

Another time I bought a batch of gingerbread men from the Alexandra bakery for the crew's morning smoko – those biscuits with their bright Smartie decorations raised a few smiles when they were handed out before being eagerly devoured. The day I bought Timtams for smoko there was a spirited discussion as to the merits of the original recipe versus the new varieties. These small conversations helped us keep our sanity amongst the immense tragedies we encountered.

 

ON OUR WAY home from the last strike team, Linda our tireless bus driver rang ahead to the Molesworth pub so the men could pick up a few beers to enjoy on the way home. Overtired and a bit cranky, I tried to sleep, but was woken by one of them handing me a piccolo of champagne. ‘We didn't think you were a Melbourne Bitter girl,' said a colleague as he handed out cans to the others. I've never drunk from a champagne bottle before; as I sipped the bubbles, I felt like crying. The last of the chocolate biscuits are handed out and a couple of hours later when we have a break at a truck stop on the Hume Highway, a fast-food chain gives the crew free coffee. It's burnt and bitter, but tastes like ambrosia.

Coming home I was off my feed for while and lost a couple of kilos. I understand that a loss of appetite is a common symptom of stress in these kinds of situations. One unexpected result is that I've since lost my taste for alcohol. Now even a single glass makes me feel ill, so I gave it away last July.

Before I left home to head up to Whittlesea on 9 February, I packed a tin with an extra fruitcake. The next morning I passed it on to a fire crew heading into Marysville or Kinglake to check properties for survivors. I don't know if they liked cake, I just hope it gave them some kind of comfort.

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