real life

10 years ago, Melanie was standing in her garden. Then the sky turned black.

You are here, you are safe, you are present, you are safe.
You are here, you are safe, you are present, you are safe.
You are here…

This is Melanie Harris-Brady’s mantra. These days, it’s more like a reflex. The words cycle through her head whenever she smells smoke or feels the baking heat of a particularly scorching summer day. But they used to be more of a crutch, a way of convincing herself that she did in fact survive the inferno that engulfed her community 10 years ago.

The mother of two was one of those lucky to escape the town of Kinglake when Black Saturday bushfires roared across the ranges on February 7, 2009. There were 120 people killed in that area alone, and a further 60 perished in blazes across the state.

Her home was razed. The home her daughter, Keeley, had grown up in; the home that held the memories of her husband Adam, who’d died of Cystic Fibrosis just 18 months earlier. His clothes had still been hanging in the wardrobe, his shaver sitting in the bathroom. Melanie made it out with Adam’s ashes and a jewellery box. The rest was reduced to cinders.

“This was the house that I felt warm, safe and nurtured in,” she writes in her book, Ten Years On. “It was our home, our sanctuary, ours.”

What was left. Image: Supplied.

Melanie often thinks of the home, of its irreplaceable treasures, thoughts that bring with them flashes of that day. But anniversaries have always been particularly difficult. "Horrible", in fact.

"You wake up and you're like, 'Today should be any other day.' And that's what you tell yourself. 'Today should be like any other day. Just because it's the seventh of February doesn't mean it's going to happen again,'" she told Mamamia.

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"But as the day starts to progress, it's like, 'Ah, this is about the time when it felt really hot, and this is about the time I was having a shower and getting ready to go out, and this was a time when the power went out.' You can't help but relive that day in your mind. It's just horrible."

The fire

Melanie was home alone that evening. Keeley, then aged seven, was having a sleepover with friends, and Melanie was getting ready to go to a music gig. The sky was clear and blue. The air hot.

A warning call came from her brother, Jason. A fire had started in nearby Kilmore, and he was worried there could be a wind change. Melanie asked a passing neighbour, who was a member of the CFA, if there was cause for concern. He wasn't aware of any. But she turned on the radio to listen for warnings, just in case.

The power went out, but still Melanie wasn't overly worried.

Then it happened. She was standing in her garden when the sky turned black. There was a noise - a deafening, jet-engine roar, a "sound of pure terror" - as the fast approaching fire front raced toward her property.

As she raced inside, Agapanthus bushes that lined her driveway started exploding. The whole area was being swallowed by flames. With the urn and the jewellery box under her arm, Melanie sprinted back to her car. As she sped away she made a frantic call to friends. 'Tell Keeley I love her.'

Adrenaline coursing through her body, she drove through the thick smoke, as the fire leapt across the road.

"Driving through the fire, I took my hands off the steering wheel and put them over my eyes for moment. And though my eyes were closed, I could almost see - like an imprint when you look away from a TV screen - that I was dead. I could see my face; my hair as ash, the wrinkles under my eyes where the skin was peeling," she said.

"And then I remember taking my hands away, and realising, no, I'm still driving. I'm alive."

She made it through, down to the Melba Highway, spurred on by a presence - her daughter, she thinks. But it was only then she remembered her beloved Kelpie, Max. The guilt was instant (and has never left her). Melanie tried to turn back for him in that moment, but a stranger deliberately blocked her path; it was too dangerous. Max didn't survive, but that driver likely saved Melanie's life.

The aftermath.

In the coming weeks, though Melanie was safe with friends and reunited with her daughter, that feeling she had during her escape - that sense that she had died - reared up again and again as her brain tried to grapple with the trauma. That detachment consumed "about 80 per cent" of her waking hours.

"It's almost like I disassociate from myself, and I think, 'Am I really here? Is this really going on?'" she said.

"It felt like I just had to play along. Like, I'm going to play along because obviously I'm supposed to. I'm supposed to get that loaf of bread to make the toast, and I'm supposed to do this or I'm supposed to do that because this is the space I'm in at the moment. It was very present that feeling, like, 'I really don't think I'm here.'"

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Sleep brought nightmares, from which she often woke yelling Max's name.

Melanie also avoided any news coverage of the tragedy. It was only two years ago that she learned how many people lost their lives, and only this month that she was able to bring herself to watch a documentary with footage from that day.

"There are parts of my brain that say, 'Was it as bad as I remember, or have I just dramatised it in my head over time?' Because if I'm just dramatising, then it's all OK," she said. "When I watched the footage, I was like, 'wow, it was that bad'. It was a huge shift in my perspective."

From tragedy, a love story.

The Kilmore East fire tore through the entire township of Kinglake - one of the worst affected areas in the state. Some 1,200 homes were burned down and more than 125,000ha destroyed.

When Melanie returned to inspect the damage the day after the fire, she was confronted with a "war zone". There was no colour; just black, grey. And death. Animal carcasses littered her neighbours' burnt-out paddocks, wrecked cars were smouldering. Some houses on her street had been spared, but most were reduced to rubble.

It was Keeley that kept Melanie from fleeing the battered community in the months that followed.

"I would never normally let a child dictate our life choices, but she'd just lost her father and then to lose all of the memories of him and her childhood, every possession that she had... It was like, you know, if this kid is telling me that she will not move, I can't test her resilience because at the moment she's broken."

Instead the two of them leaned on friends and family, accepted the overwhelming generosity of their community and strangers who donated goods, food, clothes and helped furnish their rental property. And they rebuilt their lives.

"That level of support was so helpful and truly got us through. Whether it was someone who donated teabags so that I could make a cup of tea for someone who came over, or a friend's father who came up armed with furniture, it was just incredible," she said.

Melanie's dear friend, Anthony, was among those who she turned to in the years that followed. He even moved in with them to help with Keeley and support Melanie, who some days struggled to get out of bed. He never left.

Melanie and Anthony on their wedding day. Image: Supplied.
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"After a period of time, our relationship was taken to a different level. And that, too, was hard because I had to evaluate: is this relationship being formed because I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress? Am I just trying to latch on to somebody?" she said.

"It was really complicated and so hard. But it was really love."

In August 2011, Melanie and Anthony had a son, Oscar. It was then that Melanie finally felt like she was part of something, that she wasn't just playing along.

"I remember sitting on the couch feeding Oscar and thinking, 'I'm giving him nourishment and I'm giving him life,'" she said. '"I know he's real, and if I'm nourishing him, I must be alive and this must be real."

She and Anthony married in 2017 in front of their close friends and family.

The four of them now live together in a two-storey home built on the same property Melanie fled ten years ago. Max is there too, buried beneath a stake that reads: "Here lies my friend."

It's not the same; it never could be. But it's their new sanctuary. The place where Keeley helped heal her mum, where Melanie fell in love again, where she writes, meditates, where she cooks batches of sauce and jam to give to anyone who walks in her door - a small act of generosity to continue that which was show to her.

As she writes in her book, "I also know that deep within the earth underneath this house, is a small part of my mind, and a small piece of my heart that was lost as well, and that is OK, because I am still overflowing with love and gratitude."

You are here, you are safe, you are present, you are safe.

For more of Melanie's incredible story, you can find her book, Ten Years On: A personal story of Black Saturday and the decade that followed, via the Vivid Publishing website.

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