An ordeal to remember

RELATED COVERAGE: All was quiet on the western front…

It was a day of panic the Latrobe Valley multicultural community hopes to never endure again.

Janina Strouhal recalls how one year ago she was woken by the smell of smoke in her bedroom from a fire surrounding parts of Morwell.

“I could see fire from my kitchen window,” the 91 year-old Avondale Road resident said of the fire which eventually entered the Hazelwood mine.

Ms Strouhal, who has lived alone for three decades, said she immediately covered her face with a wet towel to help her breathe and pressed sheets of newspaper between doors and windows to stop the smoke from getting inside her home.

She did not phone for help or ask for police assistance.

“When everybody’s in the same situation there’s no help (coming in) for a single person,” the Bosnian-born woman said.

However, Ms Strouhal said she received a phone call from Gippsland Multicultural Services director Lisa Sinha, who was checking on the condition of “vulnerable” migrants such as the elderly and those living alone.

A World War II survivor, Ms Strouhal said she remained at home during the critical three-week period of the fire, surviving on crackers, oatmeal and powdered milk.

She said she had learned to survive on small amounts of food when, as a teenager, she lived at a German prison camp.

Ms Strouhal said she kept herself busy cleaning her home and refused to evacuate, despite warnings from the State Government.

Fellow Morwell resident Connie Diamante said she was having a family gathering when they noticed the air outside had gone dusty.

“It was really scary,” Ms Diamante said.

Ms Diamante, who lives on Holmes Road, said her family immediately shut all their windows and shutters to prevent dust from entering the house.

Ms Diamante said she rented a house at Inverloch a week after the fire as it became difficult to breathe in Morwell.

Ms Sinha said the GMS phoned vulnerable members from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to monitor their situation during the mine fire.

“We gave them after-office hours numbers to call if they needed help,” she said, adding that masks were also distributed among CALD members to protect them from harmful dusts and smoke.

The GMS relocated its planned activity group outside of Morwell to continue servicing the elderly until the area was declared safe.