It’s eerily silent on the property between Buxton and Narbethong, Victoria, where the Bird family— David, Lorna, and children, Stephen, 11, and Sarah, 7—lived in their modest home for the past three years. Now, it’s just a pile of twisted metal, ash and a few scorched items that survived the February 7 bushfire.
They are but one family among thousands affected by the bushfires that devastated dozens of towns and settlements across Victoria on that black Saturday.
A multitude of crows break the silence as they fly over, calling to each other dismally, their sleek black feathers blending into the landscape of the quiet valley. Everything here is black.
As I walk with David and Lorna around the site where their house once stood, David pauses and says, “Look, you can see the remains of our Bibles.”
He bends down to leaf through the pages but they dissolve into ash that scatters in the breeze. Despite losing everything but their two cars, the members of the Bird family, with a strong Bible-based faith, count their blessings.
With temperatures rising into the high 40s and the wind strengthening, the fire danger was great. But life continued as normal that morning. The family, being members of the Seventhday Adventist Church, had left early on Saturday morning to attend church in Healesville. Lorna was on duty as a volunteer at a nearby health centre, where David works as a lifestyle consultant.
After church, along with the children, he joined her for lunch.
Following lunch, the family took some of the centre’s guests to Lake Mountain, east along the road that runs through Marysville, where David hoped it would be cooler.
“In fact, it was,” he says. “But I got a call at 3.30 pm saying there was smoke on the range. When it began to happen, we were still up at Lake Mountain.
“I was uneasy because I had guests with me. I had to get them down the mountain as fast as I could. We raced back to Marysville. I felt quite relieved when we got there—we were back in civilisation.”
David says Marysville was quite normal at the time, which was around 4.30 pm. There was no panic, no emergency vehicles and people were shopping.
However, a large cloud of smoke loomed to the north.
“We went back to the health centre, arriving about 4.45, and that’s when we saw the big cloud come thundering toward us,” says David. “It was like a line of volcanoes. It sounded like thunder.”
By 7.30 that night, the smoke was so thick around the centre it was as if the sun had set. By then, they couldn’t leave. It was only the arrival of a westerly wind shift that saved them and the others sheltering at the centre, as the fires wiped out the hamlet of Narbethong a couple of kilometres to the east.
Others would not be so fortunate, with heavy loss of life just 15 minutes away. The Birds lost neighbours who’d stayed to defend their property.
As the Birds drove to their property late the next day, they prepared themselves for the worst. Along the road, they passed cars in which they knew people had died. There were also many dead animals along the way.
David says, “When we were going through Narbethong and Marysville, we realised it was bad... .
We talked to Stephen and Sarah beforehand but we weren’t sure how they’d take it. We felt it would be best for them to be involved from the beginning but it was launching into the unknown.
“At this stage, we didn’t know our neighbours had been killed. The children knew their guinea pigs were gone but they also knew we weren’t as seriously affected as others who had lost relatives.”
When they arrived at their home, says Stephen, he didn’t want to get out of his car.
“I saw the pile of corrugated iron that had been the roof of our home. But the important thing is we’re still alive and still have Jesus in our hearts.”
But how easy is it to keep Jesus in your heart and see hope at a time like this?
“I think there are always things we can be thankful for,” David says, “but one thing that’s struck me is that if we look for hope, we will find it. We know that God understands and suffers, too....When we look to Christ and His life and death and resurrection, we see suffering there. To me, that’s where the answers are found—that God understands and suffers. Also, He offers us hope and says that suffering will not go on forever. I find that the most satisfying approach.
“One day, we’ll understand everything.
But for me, now, I can see there is hope, though our lives are shattered in various ways. And there are symbols of that hope.”
Such symbols, he says, include chickens hatching at the home of a friend and seeing green shoots springing in their vegetable plot, even though there’d been no rain.
“Nature hasn’t given up, God hasn’t given up and neither should we,” says David stoically.
However, people will ask where was God during the unfolding tragedy, and how could He stand by and allow it to happen?
In response, David says, “The question of suffering is probably the biggest question in life. My opinion is that there really is no adequate, intellectual answer. There’s an emotional answer that meets our need and that’s found in knowing God is all-powerful but also suffers with us. Why innocent people and children die is really a heartbreaking mystery but I don’t think it should be something to make us doubt God’s love.”
The love, support and care from friends and family have been vital for the Birds during this time, and they encourage people who know anyone affected by a disaster to provide practical help. Even small things help.
One such small thing was among a bag of toiletries given to Lorna by a friend. It contained a tiny torch and a pack of tissues. Says Lorna, “When we had to break the news to our son that our neighbours had passed away, we all sat on the bed and cried together. As I reached for those tissues, I thought of her kindness.”
Looking to the future, the Birds plan to be part of the renewal of the community and continue working in the area. “We know a lot of people in Marysville, and the community feels the right thing to do is rebuild and keep the community spirit alive,” says David. “I want to be involved in that.”
A disaster helps people to evaluate their priorities. And from the Christian’s perspective, says David, “realising we’re pilgrims passing through the valley of tears but with the hope of a better future reminds us God and His promises are always there.”
“We have realised how much more important family and friends are than our possessions,” says Lorna. “The loss of the house isn’t something we’ve mourned over too much. But the way we’re getting through this is by God sustaining us and by the prayers of people.”