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Sunday, 22 February 2009

Australia's National Day of Mourning for Its Bushfire Tragedy

photo Sydney Morning Herald

Australians of all shapes colours and creeds stood together shoulder to shoulder in today’s National Day of Mourning service for the Victorian Bush Fires in Melbourne.

The diversity of our Australian nation, and unity in the face of diversity were an over arching presence.

Both qualities were palpable throughout the ninety minutes, telecast live in every State, city and town. The theme continued in hundreds of other community civic and church services held during the day. It is thought 100,000 people took part in Melbourne services alone.

Millions of others watched telecasts, and the nation's streets and shops were largely silent.

The haunting Aboriginal didgeridoo played with such skill in concert with the Victorian Symphony orchestra and massed choirs set the scene.

An elder from the Wurundjeri people near Healesville said her ancestors had ceremoniously burned bush on their land every seven years to help preserve it.

‘What has just happened is not ceremony – it is torture of the land’ she said.

Many community leaders and survivors from the fires also took part. Hundreds of others attended gatherings in and near the burned out towns.

photo Sydney Morning Herald

Leaders from probably twenty different religious faiths joined together to give a combined message. The plaintive tones of a ram’s horn, an ancient Jewish symbol played as a call to prayer and introspection, and as a symbol of future hope and rebuilding of a broken world broke the silence.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - photo Sydney Morning Herald

The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared February 7 each year as a day when flags would fly at half mast and the nation would pause in memory of the events to help us ‘rise from the ashes of despair’. See the full speech here.

Mr Rudd said the past two weeks had been a time ‘to sorely test a nation’s soul’.

‘You have faced the test and have not been found wanting,’ he said.

A former Healesville resident combing the ashes of his home - photo

He made a ‘solemn contract’ that each of the many destroyed towns would be rebuilt ‘brick by brick, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community.

‘This is easy to say but it will be hard. Let us to the task.’

Mr Rudd said that such a tragedy would expose fault lines in some countries. Australians had been as one, with courage, compassion and resilience 'writ large'.

Mass choirs sang and two new verses written by Bruce Woodley for his song ‘I am Australian’ were taken up by the crowd.

The new Governor General, Ms Quentin Bryce made a simple inspiring speech bereft of trite language. We had met some forces too swift and too potent to be overcome, she said.

‘We have our separate tasks and we know what they are,’ she said.

‘To be a whole person is not to enjoy an untrammelled life. Life is not perfect and we give thanks to one another for not being whole.’

The Victorian Premier John Brumby said that we had seen the worst of times and the best of human nature, with friends taking in friends and strangers taking in strangers, people opening their shops and giving the stock away to help others.

Rhonda and Ray Swift and their former home - photo

The conclusion of the concert took on a lighter, determined tone with the arena crowd taking the advice of singer Michael Paynter to 'Reach Out and Touch Somebody'.

AAP image

Mr Rudd moved among the crowd after the service.

Victoria still desperately needs rain, and four fires are still burning out of control. Weather forecasts for late next week are troubling.

To date the official human death toll is 209 and rising, and it is estimated that 500,000 hectares of land will have been burned out by the time all of the present fires are extinguished. Many hundreds of houses and community structures have been destroyed, and millions of native animals and pets are dead and injured.

IFAW: Jerry Galea image

This possum is one of many animals being treated for burns suffered in the fires.

photo Sydney Morning Herald

Some of the large crowd watching the service from the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation performed superbly throughout the tragedy, spreading warnings and compiling top quality coverage. Here are some of its videos and other work.

Does your community pull together in a crisis?

Here is another video of our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It's in a much lighter vein - shot a few weeks ago when an eleven year-old girl threw him a curly question. 'Julia' is the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, seated on his left. Worth pausing for!


  1. Great strength is born of terrible tragedy. I am so sorry your nation was forced to find their strength in this manner, and for these reasons. My heart continues to go out to the victims of the fires, and the families affected.

    Mourning is a process that many need to be able to absorb what has happened, and move forward. Since so many are affected, a national day of mourning is completely appropriate. I can tell you that each year, you will feel the same emotions, and experience the same remembrances.

  2. Oh, June, I do hurt for all of you and your country! I hope this fire season will soon be over without any more casualities. The only good thing to come out of it is the pulling together of the whole country to rebuild quickly. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  3. Thanks ERIC
    I do think however that we have found our strength in other ways, previously. We are tough nuts in a tough country. Our nation of today was actually born in adversity.
    This week has reinforced our knowledge.

  4. Appreciate you SYLVIA
    As the Governor-General intimated: we must suffer to become whole.

  5. Gosh - how I feel for you and your fellow country people (including my sister who is now an Australian citizen). So much sorrow and healing, yet I hope you will come out of this stronger.

    There is no doubt that we will come out stronger! Where is your sister? Safe?

  7. I've been watching with sadness for days. Thank you for sharing the country's powerful response and beginnings of closure and expressions of grief, strength, and new life. It is a shame that the media doesn't give as much coverage to the positive things.

  8. Dear June,I hope my wild birds arived on time,to wish you and your country people strenght,loads of good love and good luck in building the lost homes,hope for those who lost their loveones that they will be able to heal,and wish for the land and all the living, to recover too!Take care of eachother,bye.

  9. I watched online from here in Auckland. There are many many kiwis who have been glued to the news over the past days and who are with you all in spirit and prayer.

    There was a flock of birds on the wing this afternoon - were they yours?
    It was a big togetherness day for us all.
    Thanks for the good wishes.

    I agree that a good story is too often a bad story, if you get my meaning.
    But I believe many in the world are thinking again, reshaping old beliefs. You don't know what will come of that.

    Yours is such a green and gentle country. How is climate change affecting you there - across the ditch?
    As good neighbours I'm not surprised that you are taking an interest. It's close to home eh?
    Thank you.

  13. It give me goosebumps to see all that Australia has been through. Thanks for posting this for the rest of us to see and maybe identify with some of your pain.

  14. Thank you for this highly personal account of what has happened. My heart breaks for the people and creatures who have died, been injured, or lost so much.

  15. Good Morning June,
    Thanks for sharing the news about the bush fire. I was devastated when I heard the news from a heart mate I have in Melbourne. So heart breaking news.

    Hope you had a wonderful Sunday and God Bless.

    Greetings from a snowy and chilly Stockholm

  16. Hi RICHIE
    'Snowy and chilly Stockholm' - perfect weather for that great food you've featured on your blog right now.

  17. Hello, June:

    I don't know that there are enough words to express how sad I am for your beautiful country.

    My daughter works for a company owned by Australians. In fact, they have moved their headquarters from Australia to the small town here in Pennsylvania where they're located. My daughter has become close to many of her Aussie co-workers. She broke into tears while we listened to the very moving song, "I am Australian," this evening.

    If I thought it would work, I'd do a rain dance for you underneath the stars tonight. I will remember Australia in my prayers, which might have more results than my dancing.

  18. A sad, and very trying time.

  19. Thank you for your beautiful feelings Martha (CROW).
    It was interesting that you were touched by what was going on here - so far away. The Prime Minister said people from most nations were indicating support.
    The song is a favourite here. If she has time your daughter and her friends may be interested in the other links. The song 'Touch' and the reaction will send her goosey. And I think Kevin Rudd did a great job too.

  20. KANANI
    Yes it is a sad time.

    As I write I see on the map below that the fires are raging again.

    There are 733 fire vehicles fighting one fire in the Kilmore-Murrundini area right now. Many people left their homes in the area last night and early this morning. Many others chose to stay and fight as conditions weren't expected to be as difficult as they were on Black Saturday. I see this fire is now regarded as 'large' and out of control.

    There are 171 more vehicles fighting at North Murrundindi not far away.

    I wish everyone well.

  21. June, The pictures in your post of the people that have lost their homes and the people coming together are heart wrenching. I know it makes you so proud to see your country join together during this time. Also, to see people open their homes and shops to those that are in need. It reminds me of how we came together after 9/11. My thoughts and prayers are with your people and your country. Hugs to you.

  22. G'Day JUDY
    Thank you.
    Yes, I'm especially proud that people have come to the aid of all - no matter colour or creed or economic level.
    It's just so good that the fires that looked extremely threatening last night have calmed down - some places even had some rain.
    Those fires were on the very edge of Melbourne and had already injured three firemen, one seriously, and destroyed at least one house. People are going back to their homes this morning but some fires are still out of control.
    Hugs back Judy

  23. Hi June, FINALLY getting over for a visit. I did watch the ceremony and it was very simply and superbly done. You have to love Princess Ann too even though I am not a monarchist. She is such a tireless worked. She only got in a short time before she spoke and must have been so tired. I like her a lot. No pretentions. I understand this Friday is expected to be similar in respect of conditions so most are being evacuated. The horror continues for people and those firefighters must be so tired and exhausted. Thanks for posting.

  24. Hi Lilly - it's certainly difficult to get around everyone isen't it? Yes Melbourne is good at cultural pursuits that's certain. The orchestra with the didgeridoo and the massed choirs were spine dingling. I agree about Princess Ann too.
    Here's hoping for the rest of the summer eh? I really did think they were in for it again last night ...


  25. What a loss! Yes, it takes a while to get over such a tragedy. Thank you for writing about it. I've read articles and my heart goes out to all of you.

  26. Thanks for your good wishes Joy.


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