Cometh the hour


In the aftermath of Black Saturday, one woman’s drive helped keep a community’s hope and spirit alive.

ANNE Leadbeater knew the hundreds of people standing in front of her, red eyed with smoke and silent with shock, were frightened and angry. She was, too. Like them, she wished it wasn’t happening. She wished it could all be undone. She wished there was time to stop and absorb it all, time to grieve.
But, as she bluntly told them, the physical needs of the living must take precedence. A small, dark-haired woman with a husky voice, she clutched a microphone and told Kinglake’s Black Saturday survivors that she understood, that everyone understood, and that they would not be abandoned. And she tried to inject them with a sense that they could work together to get through it.
“I have lived here for 21 years,” she said firmly, not seeking sympathy, but their acceptance of her credentials. “My family were sheltering in the house while my husband and I were trying to fight the fire. Every single” – she choked – “every single feeling you are having I am sharing. I want for you what you want. I’m not talking any more about all that because I’m a bit unhinged, like you are.
“If you get frustrated and angry, we are going to rise above it, as you have already risen above the most frightening experience of your lives. You got through here. I am so proud of you.
“I also wanted to give every single person in uniform on the mountain today,” she said, gesturing to the row of police, Country Fire Authority and State Emergency Service volunteers standing behind her, “a round of applause”. The newly energised crowd sent up a cheer.
“We have had nothing but support from every person that’s come up here, every person that’s heard about our plight in every state of Australia and the world … As long as we have strength of purpose and work together, we will be OK.”
There are people who flounder in a vacuum and people who fill it. Anne Leadbeater is the second kind. She has lived a quiet life in the small mountain town of Kinglake, raising her family and doing paid work for the local council helping build and maintain the links that hold a community together: child care for working families, drought support for struggling farmers. It prepared her a little for the drama of those weeks. She knew the local area. She cared about the people. And many of them knew her.
It was no sense of special ability that made her put up her hand to run the recovery effort after the fires, although she had helped run the town’s recovery effort after the 2006 fires, when some property was damaged but no lives were lost. It was simply that no one else was there. Kinglake has only a small outpost of the shire offices, a building just large enough for a reception desk, a library and a few offices. There was no set-up to manage what lay around them after February 7.
The fires left 747 houses in the Kinglake ranges, from Flowerdale to Toolangi, in blackened ruins. Twisted ghost cars littered the streets. A total of 42 bodies would later be found, the highest death toll of any area in the state that day. The road to the town was closed, strewn with smouldering trees and fallen power lines. No hero on a white charger was going to arrive to make it all better. And things needed to be done.
There was no power, no phones, no tap water (water pumps relied on power). The supermarket and pub were shut with fire damage. The bakery, which had opened its doors on the Sunday morning and fed families free, had run out of food. There was no fuel because the servo had gone up. And there were at least 400people left on the mountain who desperately needed all of those things.
“I thought we were going to spend three months in the 18th century,” Leadbeater says.
She became the woman of the moment. She first asked people what they needed and then, with the help of a tireless group of local volunteers, tried to deliver the solutions. Behind the scenes, she organised a committee of all the agencies working on the mountain – CFA, SES, police, counsellors, Centrelink, Department of Human Services, Red Cross, phone and electricity companies – so they could all share information and agree on the most urgent priorities.
She cajoled, rebuked, reassured, demanded, delegated, laughed, wept and hugged – there were lots of hugs. The humour was often black: “The standing joke was ‘Welcome to the asylum’, because we all had these red hospital bracelets (for identity). ‘Just slot the name and the facility into the bracelet after we all go off the rails!”‘
She raises a sceptical eyebrow at the suggestion that she “mothered” the town through those first ghastly weeks. “Maybe a ‘suck it up’ kind of mother,” she concedes reluctantly.
There were certainly some free and frank exchanges at town meetings in the volatile days that followed. To people who protested at having to put a sticker on their car so they would be recognised as locals, she snapped, “Don’t come bitch to me if someone stops you and asks you who you are!”
Most famously, to a crowd roaring its disapproval of a continuing roadblock that isolated the town, she retorted that Kinglake could not afford to have up to 1000 residents pour back yet: “We don’t have anywhere for them to sleep, we don’t have enough (supplies to) feed them and we don’t have enough people here to support their emotional needs. I will go down and lie on the road rather than have these people come up here and not be supported!”
She lost that battle. The road was opened. She had wanted the returnees to be gathered together at a local oval, gently told what to expect, and advised how to get help while they could all still take it in. But they were allowed to come alone.
She sighs. “We were all surprised to still be alive and feeling a bit bulletproof because of it, but those who were returning were going to have to absorb the full horror all at once. The mountain was all right when they left.
“That’s what happened. We had people walking around up here and they looked like they were walking through a nuclear explosion. You could pick them: ‘That man, that lady, that family are here for the first time today.”‘
For all her tough talk, Leadbeater’s grief broke through, too. Every now and then, halfway through a sentence at a town meeting, she would begin to cry. She would hand the mike over, step aside and gather her wits, and then return to business: bulletins about food, water, doctors, vets, fuel, donated clothes, government benefits, counselling, banking, insurance …
She laughs when asked about it. “I like to think I got really good at it, you know? ‘Here she goes again.’ ‘Just hold that thought for a moment while I sort myself out.’
“But there was no point pretending that there was any alternative, because that was how it was. It was a minute-by-minute thing. Once I was able to embrace public displays of grief and emotion, life got a lot easier. I decided that as long as I wasn’t wailing or rolling on the ground, I was going to go with what I was feeling.”
As for what made her break down, she says she only recognised it recently when a psychologist showed her photographs of traumatised people who had been through the London terror bombings. “That is the faces that were looking back at me: utter bewilderment and grief, and that thousand-yard stare. You could just see by the faces the pain that people were going through.”
Leadbeater was going through her own pain. Her parents had lost their dearly loved home in Strathewen, which had always been the hub of the family. Her sister and nephew had also lost their home and are living with Leadbeater while they sort out their future. She was sometimes seen to double over with grief as she heard news of yet another death.
And yet there were moments that made her laugh. One of her strokes of genius was to insist that the town be provided with a big tent for meetings. A tent barely large enough to store the food being used for emergency barbecues duly arrived. She rang back and said, “I need a circus tent. Think elephants and acrobats!”
But the huge white marquee that resulted was pitched in such a way that a local farmer’s fence was knocked down. His cows escaped. In the midst of all the drama and disaster, Leadbeater and others found themselves comically rounding rogue bovines off streets and back into paddocks.
The tent became the town’s centre, the place where people ate, wept, told their stories and sought counselling and practical advice. It was the logical place to direct the tax team that had arrived to help local business people. Leadbeater’s daughter, Kate, like her mother, was dealing with a dozen things at once. She told the tax person on the phone to find the tent and set up at a table and start talking to people. The person on the other end seemed a bit startled at the summary dismissal.
When Leadbeater arrived there herself, she understood why. “It was the deputy commissioner of taxation and he’d flown down from Canberra. It was the man himself and his entourage, and we’d told him to go find a seat and start talking to people! … We weren’t always as gracious as I would have liked to have been.”
The Bushfire Royal Commission starts its formal hearings on Monday. What would Leadbeater, who has seen so much, like to see come from it?
“I hope that what we have tried to practise, in terms of responsible agencies working together, will be strengthened. Perhaps agencies could work together collaboratively outside emergencies so that those processes and systems can be already in place. We also need structures that will empower local people on the ground, volunteers, to do what they did so brilliantly.”
LEADBEATER says we now know about the severity of the fires we might face in the future and must look at what messages are given about how best to respond to them. “I know people who died in homes that should have been defendable under all the usual rules, and people who didn’t do all the things you are supposed to do, who lived.
“They left home and sheltered in the open, or got into dams – the air quality close to the water with smoke is supposed to be bad, but people did it, and in this instance they survived.
“We need to put together all of those pieces and pull together a fuller understanding of what it is that has happened here.”
Leadbeater has long been a country girl. She grew up in nearby Strathewen, where she and her brothers and sister saddled up horses to go visit their teenage friends, and drove a vintage Beetle round paddocks years before they were licensed.
Recently she has had moments of feeling utterly bereft and has wondered why, given that her home and family are safe. “Then I realised I would look at a place and think, ‘I lived there and it’s burnt, and I grew up there and that’s burnt, and I was on the school council over there for years and that’s burnt.’ It feels like a great hand has come down and wiped out so much of my personal history, from when I first came to Kinglake to this point.”
So it becomes important to cherish the little things. Leadbeater was driving when she saw a small echidna marching across the road. The army major in the car with her got out to help “but as soon as she went over it tucked up. She went to pick it up” – Leadbeater laughs – “and, well, that’s not ever going to work. She ever so gently scooted it across the road with her army boot and got it off to the side, and once it felt the dirt again, off it went. I had a ladybird in my office the other day and I caught it and put it outside on a plant.
“There’s not a lot of wildlife left, so I think we’re conscious of trying to take care of what there is. It feels like we need to be really in the corner of anything that’s here and trying to make a go, and that’s the case for people and for animals.”
Karen Kissane is an Age senior writer.
BORN 1962
EDUCATION Went straight to work from year 11. Now completing a master of social science (policy and human service) at RMIT.
CAREER Has been a child-care centre
co-ordinator and a drought support worker; now community development officer with Murrindindi Shire Council.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Leading the recovery effort at Kinglake after Black Saturday; organising the Commonwealth Games baton relay through Murrindindi Shire.
FAMILY Married with two children.
HOBBIES Interminable home renovations, breeding Suffolk sheep, reading.

First published in The Age.