When stories are all we have left

Victorian Bushfires by Jessica Parker (via sunrise7 at Flickr)
Victorian Bushfires by Jessica Parker (via sunrise7 at Flickr)

I try to keep Book Thingo posts related to books, but I think it would be remiss of me not to mention the bushfire tragedy that the state of Victoria is experiencing. Last I heard, the death toll is at 173, which is more than double that of the Ash Wednesday fires that, until now, had been considered the worst in Australian history.

Just this morning, I was listening to news reports of the devastation that has occurred and may possibly continue. One of the segments was an interview with a psychologist on how to help survivors cope with their loss. One of the suggestions was to just let people tell their stories, because that the act of articulating their experiences helps in some way to make sense of and deal with it. And it was obvious from seeing news footage that in fact many people are just looking for some human contact and to be able to express to another person what they went through.

As a reader and a lover of stories, this really resonated with me. Even though I read mostly fiction, to me the act of storytelling is, at its core, a way for the author to express and explore and expose to me essential truths about human existence and human life. Storytelling is an essential part of how I make sense of my world (as you’d know if you’ve ever had to endure a dinner conversation with me), but receiving stories is how I connect with other people and make sense of things beyond myself.

I’ve heard many stories about this year’s bushfires. Some are so bad you’d be hard-pressed not to cry. You can hear the horror, almost hysteria, in people’s voices as they relive some shocking, shocking experiences.

Victorian Feb 8 Bushfires by sunrise7 (via Flickr)
Victorian Feb 8 Bushfires by sunrise7 (via Flickr)

There’s Ross Buchanan, who sent his kids off to his in-laws while he stayed to save his house only to find out later that his two children died when the fire suddenly changed direction. There’s the elderly couple sifting through the remains of their home, in despair and uninsured. There’s the woman who had to choose between jumping into the dam with her children and somehow trying to keep her young kids afloat, or drive through the fire. (She and a few other families drove through the fire and survived.) There’s the lady whose family survived in the car when the fire reached them as they were trying to reach safety. There’s the man who, badly burnt, saved a daughter but lost his wife and other child.

Then there are pictures that tell the stories no one else can. The car pitched into the dam, doors wide open. The car in a ditch, intact, while charred cars litter the road. Burnt cars huddled by the side of the road. A car crashed into a fallen tree trunk. A brick house, intact, while the house next door, only metres away, has no walls left standing. A house leveled by fire while in the yard a wooden patio set is undisturbed.

This morning, I heard that media helicopters are banned from going over certain areas because officials don’t think the Australian public would be prepared to see the pictures. I can’t even imagine how much more horrific those stories would be after all that we’ve seen and heard.

Koala saved by Australian firefighters in bushfires by sunrise7 (via Flickr)
Koala saved by Australian firefighters in bushfires by sunrise7 (via Flickr)

And what of the stories of firefighters, police, and volunteers? People trained to respond to a bushfire yet who have to watch helplessly when nothing they do can save the victims. Or worse, perishing themselves while trying to help.

And in case you didn’t know, North Queensland is suffering floods and they, too, have their own stories to tell.

If you’d like to help, you can donate to the bushfire relief fund via the Red Cross (1800 811 700) or through your local bank. The blood bank is also urging people to come in and donate urgently needed blood. To help flood victims, you can donate via the Salvos.

Kat Mayo is a freelance writer, podcaster, Twitter tragic, and compulsive reader. Her reviews have appeared in Books+Publishing, and she was the winner of the 2014 RWA Romance Media Award. She believes in happy endings, and kills fairies with glee.


  1. Hey Kat,

    My Heart goes out to you and your country men and women.

    They are most definately in my prayer.

    And you are well within your right to mention it on your blog – I keep dreading every news up date I hear – because the death count keeps going up and set to rise as iunderstand.

    Keep strong.


  2. Marg says:

    It is impossible to comprehend how bad those sites must be if it is deemed that the public isn’t ready to see it. I work with a CFA fireman. He turned up at work today and when we saw him briefly he looked totally shell shocked, and wasn’t ready to tell stories at all.

  3. Kat says:

    E.H., some reports are predicting up to 300 dead. That’s unbelievably huge.

    Marg, I read that the media has been under criticism for being too intrusive. You’re right—not everyone is ready and people deal with grief in different ways. I’m glad, though, that we’re reading individual stories that in some way validate or honour people’s fight for survival. I hope your workmate is coping all right.

    Kailana, it’s very bad when even firefighting veterans say they’ve never seen anything like it.

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