Inferno that left a hole in our profession

20th February 2009 at 00:00
The fires in Australia have claimed the lives of at least three teachers, writes Geoff Maslen

"I've seen the inside of hell," said one survivor of the Black Saturday bushfires that ravaged wide areas of Victoria earlier this month. "If you've seen pictures of Hiroshima, that's what it's like."

At least three teachers, along with an unknown number of students, died on the hottest day Australia has seen since the Europeans arrived more than 220 years ago.

Two high school teachers, husband and wife David and Carol Holcomb, died trying to defend their home, as did the teacher-union stalwart and former primary teacher Barry Johnston, who had retired from full-time work in 2007.

A passionate conservationist, Mr Johnston lived on the outskirts of Kinglake, a township that is usually a bush-enveloped outer suburb of Melbourne but became one of the worst-affected by the firestorm.

"He lived by the principles he espoused to young people - to respect the world and to respect each other," said Mary Bluett, president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union. "I have never met anybody who had anything other than wonderful things to say about Barry."

The union immediately set up a relief fund to help members and began allocating $5,000 (Pounds 2,280) each to teachers who had lost their homes. A week after the fire, $100,000 had already been spent.

The Holcombs had both taught at Whittlesea Secondary College for 17 years. Principal Terry Twooney said they had made "outstanding contributions to the community over a long time". They left three adult children, but little of their house remains.

More than 30 teachers lost their homes in the fires and are now among the 7,000 people made homeless by the inferno, which destroyed 2,000 houses, 55 shops and other businesses, and more than 120,000 hectares of forest and grazing land.

The entire township of Marysville, one of Victoria's most picturesque and historic centres, was wiped out, including the century-old local school. Some 45 schools were shut after several were damaged or areas around them were burnt out by the fires and roads made impassable. On Monday, 29 of the schools re-opened but 15 remained closed.

As teachers keep saying, the catastrophe could have been far worse had the fires occurred during a school day. Many small townships were surrounded by fires, so escape for their citizens was impossible. Some died trying to save their homes; others were burnt to death in their cars as they fled.

"Hang in there. We will be in there for the long haul," the prime minister Kevin Rudd told victims.

Mr Rudd and the Victorian premier John Brumby have promised to rebuild every school, kindergarten and community centre destroyed, "no matter what it takes or how long it takes".

Australians have shown huge generosity following the worst natural disaster the nation has experienced. So far, more than $100 million has been raised by a Red Cross appeal, along with tens of millions promised by the federal and state governments.

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