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I'm still following the Royal Commission into the bushfires, over a year on. I've been reading the transcripts and witness statements, working out why people died. There are three pieces of testimony I've come across recently that really got to me, particularly the last one, which is wonderful.

"You could have put a hundred fire tankers and Elvis in front of my house that day and you would have killed a hundred fire tankers and Elvis."

"I saw a car move and a car that wasn't burnt move and it was quite weird. It was like watching a Salvador Dali painting. It was completely out of context, that everything was burnt and black around and here was this car just moved. I thought, "Oh, well, it has to have somebody in it." It started to come towards me and I went towards it, it was on the road, and he just said, "Gidday, I'm Ray." I said, "Gidday, I'm Jim."

And then I apparently said to him - sorry - but I don't recall it, but he said to me numbers of times, he said, "You said to me, Jim, is anybody else alive?" And he said to me, "I took that to mean you were asking me was anybody else alive in the world or were you meaning was there anybody else alive in Kinglake?"

And I said, "I was asking was there anybody else alive in the world," "

"As we were packing things into the back of the car a tradesman went past, drove past and then backed back up again. He leaned across and wound down the window on our side and said to Kevin, "Haven't you got any shoes, mate?" Kev said, "No, I've misplaced them all in the melee." And he bent down and he took off his shoes and socks and gave them to him, a modern day good Samaritan. It was the most incredible act of kindness."
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I've read or at least skimmed many of the transcripts of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires. Most witnesses are professional - firies, police, power companies, experts - but most days they have at least one lay witness, an ordinary person who has been impacted by the fires. Today's lay witness lost her sister, brother-in-law and their two small children in the fires. The saddest thing is that she said she felt comforted that they found her 8-year-old niece with the body of her little dog. So she knew the little girl had her dog with her and wouldn't have been fretting for it. That tears me up.

Every single one of those 173 people who died on Black Saturday was one of us. They were human beings and they made decisions and sometimes they were the wrong ones and sometimes they were the right ones and sometimes it was just a wind gust, a falling log, a moment's recklessness that meant one died, another survived. This is so vivid. The two former CFA volunteers who evacuated their elderly parents but went back themselves because they were sure they could save the house. The 8-months-pregnant girl who ran several hundred metres from her Marysville home to reach the Oval, which was a place of safety, but collapsed and died just across the road - but who would have died too if she'd stayed at home, which burned down with her partner in it. The father and son whose two separate cars were overcome as they evacuated down a road where others fled to safety just before and just after they were killed there.

One of the most simultaneously amusing and terrifying things you can watch is a piece of footage on the ABC's Black Saturday site. Click on 'The Fires' and scroll the timeline to about 8:30 PM. The link is a video titled 'Would you turn back or keep driving?' It's footage taken by a father and son driving through the fires. It makes me laugh because they're so Australian - that could be my brother talking. "Don't worry, keep going, she'll be right". Then it gets hot. "Dad, how's this - fuck it, let's just go back". But it's terrifying because it's so real and you know that other people drove into much the same conditions probably making the same kind of remarks, and did die, that day.

It will be a terrible shame if by the end of this Royal Commission we do not have a much greater understanding not only of the way bushfires operate, but of the way people operate in emergency. How we respond to warnings, how we prepare, the difference it makes if we rehearse or have a written plan. Under what circumstances we panic, or forget what we are supposed to do, and under what circumstances we do manage to survive.


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November 2014

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