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Rebuilding after a living hell

THE Lissenburgs of Castella, east of Kinglake, Victoria, have experienced their own sense of “resurrection”.

“At the end of the fire, we were alive, but we didn’t know how special it was,” Peter Lissenburg said, recalling his family’s experience of the recent devastating bushfires.

“We started to hear (of) the death toll, very close to us, and in some ways, being alive was the resurrection for us.

“We’d gone through that ‘blackness’ and were alive.”

Peter recalled the warnings given just prior to “Black Saturday”, February 7, where a suspected 2000 homes were under threat.

Saying the fires “had nothing to do with God” and “were more a matter of physics”, the father-of-three was home with 22-year-old daughter Becky, while his wife Maria, a member of the CFA (Country Fire Authority), was occupied helping others.

Peter heard a distant “roar” and had taken the necessary precautions for what “might be”.

“At first I thought the highway was still open and that a convoy of trucks where coming up the hill,” Peter said.

“But it didn’t sound right.

“It was the wind in the trees as it fled down the mountain to feed the fire at Dixons Creek … and so the roar was of a distant wind.

“When I realised that, I was terrified.”

Peter said nothing to Becky who had “already said she was scared”.

Instead he “got to work”, convinced the family “wouldn’t get through” if they attempted to evacuate. Their “fire plan” was always about “staying” to save the three homes on the property, each belonging to family members.

“People were being evacuated from burning homes along the Melba Highway in Dixons Creek,” he said.

“I told Becky to stay as she would not get through.

“There was also a fire at St Andrew’s and she could not get through that way either. So she stayed.

“This moment is still a nightmare … (the) ‘what if’ for me, for if she left, she may well have died.

“There were two people who died on that road … I don’t want to think of that too much.”

At just after 6pm the smoke “plumed higher to the south and black dead leaves started to fall for a moment”.

Peter checked if they were “cold”.

Moments later “a lone ember drifted by” and then, hundreds of them.

“I gave Becky a spray bottle, the sort you spray fruit trees with … (and) a few litres of water,” he said.

“I showed her how to use the spray on any embers that might start burning around the house.

“My strategy was not to fight the existing fires but to prevent them from burning … prevent the house from burning.”

Describing Becky as “tough”, Peter said she “never wanted to stay during bushfires” despite the family’s fire plan.

Realising not long after it wasn’t possible to save anything but the house, their fire fighting tools were a pump, handheld spray bottles and hoses, used in a bid to keep everything moist.

The strategy successfully allowed the Lissenburgs to save their family home while the other two on the property, including Maria’s parents’ home, were completely destroyed, along with a large shed.

“The whole of the bush at my back was on fire and the shed was starting to burn,” Peter said.

“Looking to the north, our bush was a mass of rushing flames bent to the north with the wind. The flames climbed the trees and the embers covered the air above me … (until) there was no sky.”

Taking a call “from the outside world”, Peter reported the total loss of the other homes, grateful the others had long-vacated.

“It was good to hear from the outside world, good to sit for a moment,” he said of the phone ringing.

Peter then made a call of his own – to a fireman friend, Hughy Alexander – and joked about the fact he’d “seen more fire” than the professional firefighter. ]

Maria then arrived home with a CFA vehicle and another pump.

“The three of us hugged and then continued on checking and a little spraying,” Peter said of that moment.

The “underpinning of their security” was the fact there was nothing else to burn and by that Peter meant nothing more, in terms of surrounds, to fuel the fire.

When asked about the sense of loss, Peter said he has had to “let go” of material possessions.

“I saw the shed begin to burn (and) I seemed to take a pair of scissors and snip all connection with the material things beyond the house.

“I walk now around the shed, around the houses lost and around the property, careful that, when I see things lost, I don’t think of trying to recover them.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life recovering from this fire.”
Peter and Maria, who enjoy “independent bush living”, have rebuilt a granny flat for Maria’s parents and will continue to live in Castella.

They also continue to practise their faith and first joined locals for Mass in a café nearby with parish priest Fr Grant O’Neill.

“We decided it was psychologically important to continue to offer Mass,” Fr O’Neill said of the weekly gathering now among 40 to 50 residents, many others not having yet returned to the area.

Having moved back to the site of the former church in Kinglake on March 29, in a portable classroom, Fr O’Neill said the people are “hopeful” and “prayer is a big part of it”.

“You have to have a sense of hope,” Fr O’Neill said.

“The harsh reality is it’s not all over in five minutes … the process of rebuilding is another issue altogether.”

Speaking of hope, amazingly, flowers have been seen in areas “where they shouldn’t be possible”, Peter said.

On his property, surviving tomato vines continued to ripen, since turned into an unexpected gift.

“We have tomato soup in our freezer … our daughter did that, with the tomatoes that continued to ripen.”

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