David Tree, of Sam the koala fame, is finding life in his small town of Mirboo North difficult.
Picture: David Caird Source: Herald Sun
THERE probably was no more iconic image of Victoria’s hellish 2009 bushfires than that of a volunteer firefighter gingerly giving a burnt koala a drink.
Sam, as she became affectionately known, became a symbol of hope and resilience amid the loss and trauma of Australia’s worst bushfires.
She melted hearts not just around Victoria but around the world.
As we know, Sam didn’t survive. Sadly, the story of the volunteer firefighter also has been far from happy.
Since shooting to prominence, David Tree has lost his job, his and his son’s cars have been vandalised, and the family have struggled financially.
Worse still, the bronze sculpture of him and Sam, which stands as a poignant and lasting tribute to the bravery and courage of so many, has been vandalised several times.
David Tree is a knockabout guy who loves spinning a yarn.
He was a reluctant hero, drawn unwittingly into a moment in time beyond his control.
But he struggles with the fallout, and sometimes wishes his image had never been flashed around the world.
“In some ways, it’s been a curse. The whole thing ran out of control,” says David.
He is not alone in believing that in becoming a tall poppy, he became a target of vicious attacks in Mirboo North, a small South Gippsland town of 1800.
Local Citizen of the Year and SES duty officer Aaron Wilson has little doubt it was because he was the man in the picture.
“There were people who wanted to knock him down,” says Aaron.
“They were envious he was getting so much attention.”
As the image was beamed around the world, David became the toast of talk shows, and the voice of Sam and of the plight of native animals. As media demands on him grew, so did his commitment to getting the message out.
It was never about fame and fortune. I was never interested in any of that. People thought I got rich by selling the rights to the photo, but nothing could be further from the truth.
But as it consumed more and more of his time, he was dismissed from his job with a local real estate agent.
“I made my choices and I have to accept the consequences,” says David. “My 85-year-old father gave me my love for wildlife and suddenly I had this chance to help and I wasn’t going to turn away,” he says.
When the local community chose to commission a sculpture, David was at pains to ensure that the face at the centre of that sculpture was not identifiable as his own. “The CFA is a massive family. There were 80 of us on the ground that day. We were all in it together,” he says.
“Some the guys I have known for 25 years. We are like family.”
Nevertheless, it was the face of the firefighter in the sculpture that was the target of vandals on several occasions.
“Yes, that was personal,” admits David quietly.
Some of the negativity came from people who thought he should not have stopped to give Sam water, as it trivialised the fight against the raging fires.
Brayden Groen, who filmed the video on David’s phone, says it was all very innocent.
“Sam was the first animal we saw that day as we were backburning. We just filmed it to show our families,” he says.
“David did nothing wrong,” says Aaron.
“As firefighters, we make individual decisions in a split second because we are there to protect,” he says.
“David is passionate about wildlife. He saw the koala and started feeding it water.
“He wasn’t even the one who sent it (the image) around.
“He just emailed a few friends and that’s how it got out.”
David says: “It was never about fame and fortune. I was never interested in any of that.”
And there’s been no fortune, either.
“People thought I got rich by selling the rights to the photo, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
David driving the school bus. Picture: David Caird Source: Herald Sun
That picture did help raise hundreds of thousands for the CFA, and the wildlife shelter that tried to save Sam.
There were numerous other fundraising efforts. But David didn’t cash in.
“Why people think it was some kind of scam or that we all got rich is a puzzle to me,” says Brayden.
“I certainly didn’t expect it to turn out this way. It has shocked me.
“People hurting David should realise how proud we all are of what Sam brought to this community.”
David sees it differently.
“I did get rich – filthy rich. I got rich in seeing others benefit, smile and laugh from my simple act of random kindness,” he says.
David Tree was a man caught in a moment in time.
His image was the one caught on film, and as we all invaded his world, photographers and reporters pushed and prodded him to re-enact and reconstruct that moment.
“The knockers should realise what an impact that photo had,” says Aaron.
“The good that has flowed from it has far outweighed the negative.”
David and his family are struggling to find their feet again financially.
He is happy driving the school bus for now, eager to close the circle on a yarn he only ever wanted to happily share with his children, and theirs.