Families adjust to new normal in ‘town too tough to die’


TRICIA Hill is living in borrowed caravans with her three children on her burnt-out block in Kinglake. She has no power or running water.
The mornings can be tricky, she grins. The first day, her daughter said she needed a toilet. “I said, ‘Go for a bushie.’ She said ‘Mum, there’s no bushes!”‘ They drove to the local CFA station, where Ms Hill is a member, to use its bathroom. That is part of their daily routine as life returns to the new “normal” after Black Saturday.
It sounds rugged, but she considers herself lucky: “There’s a waiting list for vans or any accommodation here, really. We did hear on the grapevine that they said they would give us some portable homes, but there’s no word on that.”
She does not want to move out of the area, even though her work as an events manager assistant takes her to town: “All I want is to go home and this is home. There’s nowhere else to live up here, and downtown doesn’t feel right.”
Her younger children – Linden, 13, and Sancha, 12 – are in the smaller caravan. Her son Jorden, 15, needs the greater length of the bed in the second caravan. Ms Hill sleeps in the third, and its annexe – put up with the help of volunteers during a rainstorm – is their living area.
Tied to a tent-peg is the frisky black puppy she was given to replace the family dog lost in the fire. Ms Hill has not lost her sense of humour; the new one is named Ember.
When it gets cold she lights a fire in the old metal keg that is one of the few things to have survived the flames. But the snowy Kinglake winters are bitter and she hopes to have her shed up within two months so the family can live there until their mudbrick home is rebuilt.
Meanwhile, she is trying to work her way through the bureaucratic maze of forms, information and misinformation involved in trying to re-build life for her family.
What she misses most about her old life, she says wistfully, is the couch – and the ability it gave her to just flop at the end of the day.
More than 1600 homes were lost in the blazes that ripped through the Kinglake ranges and neighbouring towns. While some families in places such as Flowerdale are in donated portable homes, others are renting in Melbourne or living on-site in tents, vans or even old portable classrooms.
Ms Hill has refused to let herself stop and think too much: “I have kept myself busy and focused. I study as well. I haven’t had time for emotional things. If I stop and break down, what’s going to happen? Nothing.”
Cooking is difficult, but Ms Hill has chosen not to take the family for free meals down the road at Kinglake West.
There, locals complained following the cessation of emergency army meals several weeks after the fires, and the free evening meals were restarted.
“I think it’s time for people to start standing on their own two feet,” she says firmly.
“Our businesses need to be supported by us spending money here. All the free meals mean that money is not being put back into the infrastructure of our town. They are going broke, basically, with all the free food.”
Trish McCrae feels the same way. She is touched and grateful for all the help she has been offered by friends and colleagues, particularly the friends who have turned their tin shed into a home for her.
She now has plastered walls, a kit kitchen, a plush lounge suite and a soon-to-be fully plumbed and tiled bathroom. Her friend told her: “If you’re going to be here for a long time, you’re going to be comfortable.”
Ms McCrae is a disability support worker and is humbled to find herself on the receiving end of giving.
“It distresses me when I see people who have lost their homes and had so much offered to them who feel bitter. How can you still carry anger after what’s been done for us? The anger is at the fire …
“We have got to do for ourselves now and not be victims.”
Both she and Ms Hill are worried that new building regulations will force them into modern estate-type housing rather than the character-filled kind of homes they lost.
Ms Hill wants to start a mud-brick rebellion if she finds she can’t rebuild the way she wants. “I’m a fighter,” she says.
The town itself is a fighter, says Ms McCrae, who was delighted when the local paper recently dug up an old photograph of the town sign as it was after bushfires in the 1970s. It read, “Kinglake: The town too tough to die.”

First published in The Age.