Australia — A town that defied Ash Wednesday’s fury may have the perfect site for a fire centre.
These days it is a disused, vandal-friendly shell, but the old kindergarten in Cockatoo’s McBride Street is an iconic site in Victoria’s bushfire history. Some would say the scene of a bushfire miracle.
And, according to a small group of supporters, this ramshackle building east of Melbourne is the perfect location for Victoria’s first bushfire museum a project driven by The Sunday Age.
On Ash Wednesday, February 16, 1983, fire exploded into Cockatoo about 7.30pm. As the sirens sounded, many townsfolk, mainly women, children and the elderly, fled to the kinder for sanctuary. When the flames swept across them and the building filled with smoke, they lay on the floor with wet towels over their heads.
One was Ric Wigmore. At the 25th anniversary of the fires last year he told how his family and two children in their care lay breathing through wet rags “and didn’t even realise there were heroes on the roof dodging embers whilst holding onto a hose”.
One of those two heroes was David Adam. He told the Melbourne Herald after the fires that the wind was at least 160 km/h: “It was ripping trees out of the ground and bodily picking up firemen (and with it came) scores of fireballs each at least as big as a soccer ball. It was the most frightening thing I have ever seen.
“How the children never panicked I don’t know. How they weren’t all killed either by the flames or by the lack of air when it was all sucked out of the kindergarten has to be a miracle.”
Seven people died in Cockatoo that night, 289 buildings were destroyed and a third of the town’s 3000 people were displaced, but the kindergarten and all those inside survived. But since it ceased operating as a kinder it has slowly fallen into disrepair.
Now a determined group of residents wants to save it and see it reborn as a memorial, not only to the Ash Wednesday fires but to bushfires before and since. In late 2007 they began campaigning to turn it into the Cockatoo Fire Interpretation Centre.
Steering committee member Stephen Nichols said the aims of the centre were similar to those of The Sunday Age’s campaign for a bushfire museum and research centre to be established in one of the areas stricken by the Black Saturday fires of February 7.
The objective is to record and preserve the history of major fires in Australia; provide information on the causes of fires and how to live in bushfire-prone areas; and provide interactive educational experiences telling the stories
of people and communities who have experienced bushfires.
The Sunday Age campaign has received strong support from readers, the CFA, museum professionals and the State Opposition.
“We were inspired by how Darwin Museum remembers the events of cyclone Tracy and it seemed we could do something similar here,” Mr Nichols said.
“It started out just looking at Ash Wednesday but then we realised there was a whole lot more to our bushfire history Then we saw it as a resource centre for people to get information and,
if we could get it up and going, perhaps even a research centre.”
He said while Cockatoo had rebuilt since Ash Wednesday, for many the memories were still painful. “There are still people who’d sooner not be reminded of Ash Wednesday. They say it will drag up bad memories. That’s not what we want out of this, we want to focus on the positive, to show that we can learn from the past and improve things,” he said.
Peter Ryan, State Nationals leader and Opposition spokesman on bushfire response, said the Opposition supported The Sunday Age’s campaign in principle, but said the museum should be built in Melbourne, and called a Living Memorial rather than a museum.
“I think that’s important because it needs to look forward as well as looking back, so you’d need some sort of research facility associated with it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t put it in the fire ground. I think that all 20 or so communities will establish their own respective equivalents in different forms, so I’d put it in a very public place in Melbourne.”
But former museum director Tom McCullough said a bushfire museum needed to be at a related site. “The power of historical context is ultimately more important in a memorial or shrine, than a commercially viable museum site in an unrelated population centre.”