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29 April 2009
A Serious Miscommunication (April Challenge 26)
Found poem. Fragments from interviews with survivors of the Marysville fires.
It was gathering momentum as it went,
the front flying with that wind.
Telephone line congestion.
Two-way radio system heavily overloaded.
On a day like that, hit quickly while it’s small.
Enough tankers, you may contain it.
I questioned whether our tanker should go elsewhere, but
you fight the fire you’ve got, not the one you might have.
I don’t know where the gap in the information is,
I really don’t know the answer to that one.
By 4.30 there were burning embers,
gumnuts falling in the mill and sheets of bark.
The Mt Gordon fire spotter saw what was coming
and the speed. He stayed there and kept giving warnings.
Told me to get out. “We’re going to come under
severe ember attack at any moment.”
The list of people who needed help was small.
There were people who should have been on the list.
I had no idea of the size and the speed it was travelling.
The first warning was not till twenty-five to six.
We didn’t know what it was, which direction it was coming,
it was mounting even as you looked at it.
“We’ve spoken to the police and this is just
smoke from somewhere else.”
“What are all those red spots? “ “That’s because the sun
is high in the sky.” I accepted that!
It was like a normal day
except for the heat and the cloud of smoke.
So fast. Official warnings
were running behind the fire.
One report we had was that houses
were not under threat. We knew it wasn’t true.
We had to say they are,
against what the CFA* was saying.
Perhaps a radio, some sort of screeching
saying “Emergency! Emergency!”
Possibly, whatever you were doing,
you’d think, “That’s strong,” and listen.
We tried. We couldn’t get through the official ropes,
couldn’t get regional HQ by telephone or radio.
We saw smoke, we tried to get information from websites.
The power went out, we lost the computer.
I had no idea of the size of what it was we were facing
and I don’t think anyone else did.
There’s two people I’d dearly loved
to have got that message.
What do people think the siren’s there for? To call firefighters
to the station to go and address a fire, that’s what it’s there for.
They remained in their houses because there was no siren
to have gone loud and continuously.
People would have said, “What’s happening?”
and they would have moved.
I kept saying, “I haven’t heard the siren.”
Apparently nowadays they don’t use the siren.
The CFA pages them –
but what about the rest of us?
She drove up and down the streets, yelling,
“We’ve got about ten minutes to get out.”
There were people who wanted to stay. Didn’t get out in time.
They had no idea of the ferocity.
At twenty to seven an official red flag alert,
the only one that day. Wind change.
We knew we had big trouble. The fire
would blow across the town fast. Time was really short.
We drove up and down a few roads with sirens going
and in minutes it was dark, with embers in the town.
It was getting noisy and dark. Out on spot fire patrol
I lost my mobile phone, my link to my family.
I did try to ring from another phone, didn’t get
an answer, didn’t know what had happened.
Fire crews at the oval. Nothing they could do.
The town was going up around them.
Thirty people died, most in or near their houses,
some in cars. Some called Triple-O for help.
There was nowhere to go. Maybe they got out.
There wasn’t a lot we could do by then.
People trapped in cars, people trapped in houses,
and for ninety percent of the calls, nothing anyone could do.
Not notified of their daughter’s death
for weeks, but reports confirmed their fears.
A young pregnant woman’s body on the road.
Eight months pregnant. Couldn’t outrun.
Compulsory evacuation should be mandatory,
especially on days of total fire ban.
We need communications and evacuation procedures.
Why are they saying, “Stay and defend, or not”?
People stayed on that fateful night, and they died.
They just didn’t know the fire was coming.
* Country Fire Authority