Staring out across Gippsland, Tia Van der Meulen remembers the exact moment the sky went black on Saturday February 7, 2009.
“It was four or five in the afternoon, but it was like night had fallen over the towns,” Ms Van der Meulen said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything was burnt; the trees, the wildlife, homes and properties were completely destroyed. I’ll remember it forever.”
As a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority in Moe, Tia battled the fire-front almost every day for an entire month.
“I think I had maybe two days off. I remember my captain telling me I needed to go home and rest, but I couldn’t. I needed to be out there,” Ms Van der Meulen said.
In June, Tia was awarded a National Emergency Medal for the pivotal and critical role she played in the bushfire response, an honour which has only been awarded following two other disasters.
Tia now works as a legal assistant for Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Morwell helping with compensation claims and said her experience during the Black Saturday bushfires changed the way she views the world.
“The resilience and strength of the community stays with me.”
“So many people lost everything. We’d give them a hug and tell them it would be okay, but we couldn’t cry. We had to be strong.”
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Slater and Gordon Morwell Lawyer Kim Hawryluk said the entire office is proud of Tia’s contribution.
“The bushfires had a huge impact on our clients and staff, some of whom were evacuated, lost their homes or lost their loved ones,” Ms Hawryluk said.
“We are all incredibly grateful to Tia and every other emergency worker who risked their lives to protect the community.”
Volunteering with the CFA is a family affair for Tia. She joined almost four years before Black Saturday, initially to support her brother.
“My brother has special needs and wanted to be a CFA volunteer, so I joined the brigade to help him. My father was also a volunteer,”
“At first I never wanted to hold a hose or be near a fire-front, but I realised I had a passion for helping people I couldn’t ignore.”
“We were out there day and night during the Black Saturday bushfires and sometimes we were cut off by encroaching fires and couldn’t leave. My father was trapped for 18 hours at one point.”
Looking back, Tia said she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“People let us into their homes, told us to help ourselves to whatever was in the fridge and would come up to us in the street to say thank you.”
“They didn’t have to say thank you. It was an honour.”