Black Saturday 10th Anniversary

Speech by Margaret O’Connell
Community commemorative event held at Castella Central Park, 7 February 2019

My task is to talk about what happened in our Toolangi-Castella community after the 2009 fires, but firstly I want to specially thank the CFA members, DSE staff, the local farmers, and everyone who pitched in and did what they could back in February 2009. Without you, many of us wouldn’t be here today. I am truly grateful to you.

I want to reflect on how we have survived and thrived as a community, I don’t want to talk much about the fires and Black Saturday other than say that lots of Castella burnt out, and sadly we lost two residents – Kate Ansett and Steve Fisher – out of our population of 800.

And although quite burned around the edges, Toolangi remained, like a hole in a donut. We were isolated, cut off for weeks, still threatened by fire and choking on the smoke from all the back- burning. People from west Castella weren’t able to cross over the Melba Highway to access information and relief at the Hall. There was no communication, other than by dodging the fire trucks and walking to the Hall to find out what was going on. There was no power other than what you got from your generator and we were all running out of fuel. Our water tanks were contaminated. There was ash everywhere. It felt like the end of the world.

While fighting the fire I had overcome my fear. And people survived. Toolangi didn’t go under. We combined with Castella. The community became a community again. People were caring, helping, giving their time and skills and understanding, befriending strangers.

In my garden, magpies dug for bugs in the exposed soil where Shane had cut a firebreak and birds and animals found refuge with us. Police from everywhere kept lonely vigils on the roads, although we tried to sneak around the roadblocks. There were firefighters from everywhere, and volunteers.

Fresh food arrived and was distributed at the C.J. Dennis Hall. There were updates from the CFA, DSE, the Army, Peter the Telstra man, the road repair crew, Anne Leadbeater, ABC radio. Dashy gripped the microphone and solemnly advised us “It’ll be over when it’s over”.

Steve Meacher picked up people’s prescriptions. The Singing Gardens and Toolangi Tavern provided some basic meals. There was vet assistance, food for animals, money from the government, social workers and chaplains wandering around. For days Jean and Ali made sandwiches and cleaned the DSE showers – presumably not at the same time. Jo did lists, Rosie swept out the Hall, Fred and Lorraine organised food and generators. Everyone pitched in.

In Toolangi we have the attitude that if you want something done, you get on and do it yourself. So I organised a public meeting on 17 March and we got people – many of you are here today – to list short and long-term proposals for recovery and invited volunteers to form a Bushfire Recovery Group, as a subcommittee of the Community House.

I sorted the community ideas into categories of Infrastructure, Social, Garden/Environment, Communication, Fire Planning, and Business. The volunteers chose their projects and came up with plans to get the stuff done. So many people deserve recognition and thanks for what they did, but I would like to highlight these people who stepped forward: Margaret Balsdon, Tabitha Barclay, Janine Clarke, Helen Collier, Lisa Carew, Lorraine Hunter, Steve Meacher, Michael Nardella, Raenor Priest, Nicola Rose, Fred Swainston, Jack Walhout and Jan Williams.

Our Bushfire Recovery Committee members rolled up their sleeves and achieved all of our short-term objectives by October 2009. These were things like thank you letters, a Bush Dance, business signage, expansion of fireguard groups, the SMS system, garden regeneration started, and continuing the Community Building Initiatives of the multi-purpose trail and the Hall upgrade.

Then the outside world caught up with us and in November we were approached by the Shire and Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction & Recovery Authority and told we had to form a Community Recovery Committee (CRC). We politely declined because of the bureaucratic BS involved, and besides, we were already doing it. But Sarah Martin and Kim Chadband applied more pressure and so we finally caved in.

Becoming a Community Recovery Committee linked us in with other fire-affected communities and that gave us access to relief money. Then we had to learn how to apply for grants. Such a lot of bureaucratic BS!! We couldn’t have achieved half of what we did without our Community House Coordinator, Kerry Starr.

Some people in Toolangi didn’t want assistance because we hadn’t been burnt to the ground – but it was a different kind of trauma, being trapped and surviving. We had lost friends and family too. Time was elastic, adrenalin raged within us. It had gone on and on and on.

Over the next couple of years, the Community Recovery Committee had great success in achieving all of our long-term objectives, with the exception of getting public transport up here. We won awards for our different community initiatives and events.

Jack Walhout has observed that our achievements shouldn’t be measured just in financial terms, but in the way they brought the community together and the value of the ongoing benefits in the recovery journey. I won’t list everything – you can see some of the information displayed at the Hall this weekend at the photo exhibition.

When we were planning this event, someone said to me that when you volunteer it is empowering. When you get involved, you feel like you really belong and have a purpose. We still have that opportunity here in our community. I invite you to give it a try and get involved with things like the Community House, the Community Garden, the Men’s Shed, the local Primary School, the Country Fire Authority.

Lastly, I would like to thank my husband Manfred for putting up with me during the lead up to this 10th Anniversary of Black Saturday. And I would like to thank you all for listening to me. Please enjoy the rest of the evening.

Margaret O’Connell

Past President, Toolangi Castella District Community House
Chair, Toolangi Castella Community Recovery Committee