On each anniversary of the Black Saturday fires, Rob Greig wanders into his garden at Flowerdale and pours a little bourbon into the tank of his burnt-out Harley. “It only gets a sip, mate,” says the burly bikie. “I take the rest of it.”
Five years ago, on February 7, 2009, the huge fires tore through the Victorian bush, killing 173 people and injuring 414.
Mr Greig's annual drink with the bike is a small but important personal ritual. He lost not only his beloved Harley but also his house, escaping the firestorm with his dog Missy. As Mr Greig explains, it's about the bike not being forgotten.
In the immediate days after the horror, Fairfax Media photographer Jason South captured Mr Greig on the charred frame of his Harley, tenderly cradling Missy.
Mr Greig had returned to a home and a life reduced to ashes, but was determined to rebuild and “clean up this mess.” In those grimmest of days, the photograph spoke not only of destruction, but survival.
Even then, he had plans for the burnt-out bike and thought it might make a garden feature. Five years on, it sits near a pole. Mr Greig has now refined his plans and reckons he will make the bike a memorial, along with a flag on the pole.
True to his word, Rob Greig has rebuilt, and there is a new Harley.
The 59-year-old didn't think about leaving the area. “What the hell am I going to do?” he said. “Where am I going to go?
"It's not like I've got any money in the bank or anything like that.”
How is he faring? “Not bad,” he says. “I was just thinking this morning about it. I was looking at a couple of cupboards and some of them have got handles on them and some haven't.
“You have this big rush of energy to do something then you lose a bit of interest ...
Everyone goes through this sort of thing I think.”
Anniversaries bring their own challenges. By the time the third anniversary came around, it was something of relief when well-meaning outside interest had waned. The feeling was: “Thank God, they've forgotten about it a bit,” he said.
The survivors have their “own little moments”, Mr Greig says, triggered by something such as a news report. “You sit there and you think, Geez, I just want it to go away. You're just trying to get on with things and get your life back into some sort of normality again.”
Many of his neighbours haven't returned, and he has watched the grass on those blocks “going berserk”, despite the efforts of the council workers. “You're sitting on a bomb again, mate. It's like nothing's got learnt from it all.”
In the five years since the fires, enormous changes have been made to bushfire management around the country.
Aside from the big-ticket items – including more than $1billion in response to the Bushfires Royal Commission – the danger rating system has been revised to include "catastrophic" warnings.
The story Five years after the fires, it's still the Harley, Missy and me first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.