LIZ Spicer still struggles to describe what she saw the day she arrived in Strathewen following Black Saturday.
A town devoured by bushfires, the countryside scarred and families left without homes, possessions — and many with aching holes where loved ones used to be.
‘‘It was like a war zone where the fathers didn’t come home,’’ she said.
‘‘It was a war against a fire — and the biggest disaster Victoria has seen for a long time, there was just so much loss and death. What I saw and heard haunts me to this day.’’
Liz was among a number of chaplains who arrived in the Strathewen, King Lake and St Andrews district the day after the devastating bushfires.
And who stayed long after the smoke cleared.
‘‘The chaplains remained after a lot of the workers left because they were asked to stay by the locals,’’ Liz said.
‘‘One girl cried when I said I needed to cut my time down and said, ‘Are you going to leave us too?’
‘‘That’s when I decided I’d stay.’’
Released by her school, Liz travelled to the district two days a week for the next two years.
She prayed with them, cried with them and listened to their stories.
For many, she was just that constant presence they needed — that galvanising taste of stability after everything else had crumbled around them.
Jammed in a tiny car loaded up with gifts, supplies and homemade meals from Kyabram locals, Liz travelled down each week.
It was Ray Wade’s ginger fluffs that disappeared the fastest.
‘‘Those affected by the fires didn’t have kitchens, so they were ecstatic about the homecooking I’d bring,’’ Liz said.
‘‘Kyabram was so generous throughout those years. But the fires had touched so many people. Even people in Ky had family in those places.’’
Eight years on, the scarring left by Black Saturday remains in the district. But it’s beginning to heal. Recently, Liz travelled the familiar roads to Strathewen once again — but this time for a celebration.
Strathewen Primary School had reached its centenary.
The school building, charred and hollowed by the fires, had been rebuilt brick by brick. It stood there, a testament to the resilience of the Strathewen community, an act of defiance to the fires that had taken so much.
It was a bittersweet day for Liz as she was reunited with the children, parents and school staff she had grieved with eight years before.
‘‘It was special, but underpinned with sadness,’’ Liz said.
‘‘It was good to go back there and celebrate rather than cry. But because my connection with them had stemmed from the deaths and trauma of the fires, it was still confronting.’’
Set into the wall of the entrance to the school were some bricks that stood out from the rest, inscribed with the names of people precious to the school community.
One had tiny drawings of a cake, a cross and a smiley face and the words ‘‘Liz Spicer, Vicar of Strathewen’’ carved into it.
This gesture, however small, was imbued with the sheer volume of thankfulness Strathewen residents felt towards the chaplain who stayed by their side when they needed her the most.
This gesture is echoed in the words of Mish Ness, a parent and volunteer worker from Strathewen.
‘‘Liz came bearing sponge cake and hugs which she dispensed with laughter or tears — whichever was needed,’’ she said.
‘‘She sat with us, stood beside us and walked with us and in doing so gave us the strength and courage to do what we couldn’t do alone.
‘‘There were times when I was so steeped in grief I thought my heart would stop beating. Liz was my strength in those times. I feel like she saved my life.’’
Strathewen's Mish Ness and Kyabram chaplain Liz Spicer at Strathewen Primary School's centenary.
A brick of the rebuilt Strathewen Primary School commemorates Kyabram chaplain Liz Spicer.