In the line of fire: one year after the Australian bushfires

In the line of fire: one year after the Australian bushfires

17 January 2010

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Australia — Nobody in Marysville had expected the sky to turn into lava that day. And yet that’s what it looked like to Sharen Donovan when she ran into the garden in search of her husband, at 17 minutes past six on a still summer evening. Everyone was confident that Marysville wouldn’t, couldn’t burn, but there it was – the high wooded hill behind the Donovans’ house ablaze. But it wasn’t simply burning trees Sharen saw – what loomed above her was impossible, unimaginable, an endless dome of spitting, boiling red, like the dawn of hell itself over their pretty forest town.

“Terry!” Sharen shouted at her husband. “Look! We can’t fight that! We’ve got to go!”

There he was, practical and optimistic as ever, her 60-year-old builder-turned-holiday-home-entrepreneur with a dribbling hose in his hand. Terry’s calmness made her want to hit him. He, like all responsible adults in this bushfire-prone patch of Australia, knew the official advice for circumstances such as this: stay and fight or go early. It wasn’t only their home Terry had decided to defend, but their four beloved luxury tourist cottages, known collectively as Dalrymples.

“I don’t care about any of that!” Sharen screamed. “I just want you!” But Terry also knew that the homes that are abandoned are the homes that burn. “It would be the worst thing to go now,” he shouted back.

Sharen couldn’t wait. Moments after she’d fled in the car, Terry’s hose ran dry, and all that terrifying light was suddenly throttled by a barrage of black smoke. In the blind darkness, the sound of the approaching destruction roared ever louder. A ferocious wind threw itself around the walls and streets of Marysville, launching branches, debris and trees. And that, for Terry and Sharen Donovan, was the moment when the worst disaster in Australia’s history really began.

Australia is notorious in Britain for its startling variety of causes of death, thanks to its violent wildlife and the dangerous heat of its empty desert roads. But the people who actually live on the planet’s largest island tend to fear two entirely different dangers: skin cancer and bushfires. Destruction by flame has long been an essential function of life down here. It’s been so predictable for so long, in fact, that several species of plant rely on it for regeneration. Bushfires are at their most perilous in the southern state of Victoria during the high summer months of January and February, when the vast forests and farmlands are dry and stretch out in wait, over thousands of kilometres, for the inevitable lightning showers and wind storms. Before last February, the most deadly conflagration in the country’s history occurred on Friday 13 January 1939, when 71 people died and nearly 5m acres of Victoria burnt. On that day, the smoke was so thick in the state capital, Melbourne, that people couldn’t see across the street. But even on “Black Friday”, the little town of Marysville, 100km to the northeast, remained safe.

Marysville’s escape in 1939 was only part of the reason why the locals didn’t flee on 7 February 2009. The hills that surrounded them were lush, semi-temperate rainforest and, besides, they all knew their fireplans, and the official advice that you needed to either stay and fight or go early, with the former option widely preferred. Bushfire fronts are fast moving and tend to pass in two to five minutes; the way to avoid them is by being inside. Most properties catch alight during associated ember showers and can be quenched if you’re prepared with mops, buckets and pre-filled sinks and baths.

In common with the majority of his neighbours, Terry still didn’t accept there was a threat when he saw two plumes in the distant north at around 5.30pm. He had the website of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) opened on his computer, which reassured all the townsfolk that the fire was 25km away in Murrindindi Mill. In fact, the Donovans had been grumbling about the warnings of potentially catastrophic conditions they’d heard throughout the week: “How the hell are you supposed to run a holiday business when they tell everyone to stay away?”

Its resident population stood at 406, but Marysville had over 3,000 beds available for the tourists that had been visiting its pretty trails and the nearby Steavenson Falls. Even with that capacity, visitors often came to find no vacancies and were forced to press on to nearby Buxton, Alexandra or Healesville. But not on 7 February. As Terry and Sharen sat down to eat at the Corner Cupboard cafe that lunchtime, they resigned themselves to a quiet afternoon of pottering, having only two sets of guests to look after. They couldn’t know, as they nibbled at their smoked-salmon salads, that their neighbourhood was about to be consumed by a force with the destructive energy of 1,500 Hiroshima bombs.

It all began 13 days earlier, on 25 January, and it was invisible and distant and massive. Way above the Tasman Sea, a gigantic high-pressure system moved slowly, while to the northwest an intense tropical low butted against a great monsoon trough that stretched over the north of the continent. By 28 January, those three giants had conspired to funnel a remorseless stream of hot tropical air over southern Victoria. In the town of Mildura, they had 12 consecutive days over 40C; in Hopetoun, the mercury hit 48.8C – these, just two of the 50 records that were broken. Soon, the infrastructure of the towns and cities began to fail: power cuts were widespread; thousands of trains were cancelled due to buckled rails; hundreds of fruit bats fell lifeless from the trees; koalas began behaving bizarrely, wandering into gardens to drink from swimming pools; the heat began to make people fatally sick. Melbourne’s Monash University reported an increase in the death rate of 45%.

On 4 February, state experts responsible for calculating the fire risk realised that the numbers for that coming weekend were worse than anything they’d seen before. The official scale of reference is the Fire Danger Index (FDI), which uses 1939’s Black Friday as its benchmark, affording that a score of 100. Days that achieve an FDI score of over 50 have previously been given a risk category of “extreme”. The FDI score for the 7th was a scarcely believable 300. The wind would be strong, the temperatures severe, the humidity just 9%. At an emergency briefing on Thursday 5 February, fire meteorologist Claire Yeo found the news she had to deliver so grave that she froze in silence at her lectern. The next day, Victorian premiere John Brumby held a press conference at which he warned, “Tomorrow is just as bad a day as you can imagine… it’s the worst in the history of the state.”

When they recall the events of the worst day in their own history, Terry and Sharen are surprisingly lucid about the details. Throughout the course of what was to come they disagree about one or two incidental timings, but almost everything else that occurred remains closely with them. One of the curious things they can’t relate, however, is how they felt, and why. There’s a point where Sharen must have known that life, if it could even last beyond the next few minutes, would likely be unrecognisable forever. Somewhere within her, there was a shift. Her tears and panic lifted. She remembers, vividly, thinking “This isn’t real.” And as things descended with such grim velocity, aside from one short breakdown, Sharen’s mind stayed still. Today, she can only shake her head and say, “It’s a funny space to be in. It’s just… not like your normal feelings,” and yet, often they were exactly like her normal feelings: in the midst of the horror, at moments when they expected to die, they were still worrying about the little things, still cracking silly jokes.

The first indication of trouble came at 5.30pm, when Terry saw the two columns of smoke in the distance. “It’s a long way off,” he said. “Looks like we got away with it again.” That fire had first been noted by a spotter at 3pm, up on Mount Despair. It moved quickly on to nearby Little Wonder, before spreading across the rest of the Black Ranges. At 6.17pm, Sharen’s sister Glenys phoned to say 10 fire engines had just passed by. Glenys had only been in Marysville for 18 months. “Do you think we should leave?” she asked. “Come down here and we’ll go together,” said Sharen. “I’ll just go find Terry.”

They could hear it now – violent, like war, like the end of everything was taking place down by their four-star Mistletoe Cottage. Ten minutes later, the sky had turned to lava, they’d had their disagreement and Sharen had left for Alexandra, her sister in the car in front. In the deafening, black-filled roads, a convoy was being led out of town by a fire truck. Sharen let her sister join the queue and waited until it had passed. By the time she reached Murchison Street, the wind had reached 140kmh, branches were cracking and thumping against her vehicle. The smoke was darker than night – impossible even for Sharon’s lights to slice through. Just as she was about to escape, a mountain ash was thrown across the tarmac. She braked. There was no way out.

Minutes after Sharen had left, Terry gave up. He ran to his pick-up truck and tried to escape down the main street, where he met the same fallen tree as his wife. Somewhere in the darkness, they passed each other.

Sharen arrived home to find an orange glow breathing deep beneath the slats in the deck. “Terry! Terry!” She grabbed a mop to damp down the heat, but the air outside was scorching, and intolerable. Back inside, the house was filling with smoke. The bathroom would be the safest place. Just before her hand reached for the door, the kitchen phone rang. “Are you OK, Mum?” It was Luke, one of her two sons, calling from Melbourne. “No, actually, I’m not,” she said. “We’re very proud of you boys and we love you very much, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

Terry reversed back up Murchison Street, hoping he wouldn’t hit anything in the choking black fog. As the debris pummelled his pick-up truck, he tried another route, up Lyle Street, down Darwin Street and behind the Cumberland hotel and spa. His mobile rang.

“Dad, it’s Luke.”

“I’m a bit busy, son. I’ll get back to you.”

“It’s Mum, she’s back at the house. She’s stuck.”

Sharen was crying when Terry found her. There was water in the bath, so he told her to wet some towels to use as face-masks, while they sprinted back to the pick-up.

“Oh, but those are the new guest’s towels,” Sharen complained when Terry began drenching them. “Those are the expensive ones.”

They ran over the smoking deck and jumped into the pick-up. As they drove off, the perfect manicured lawn of the Marylands guesthouse next door caught alight almost instantaneously, as if the fire itself was liquid, spilling across its surface. There was a sudden light in Terry’s rear-view mirror. He braked. He remembered the leaves in the back of his pick-up, and the lawnmower and the petrol canister. Terry and Sharen pushed their towels to their faces once more and forced their way through the scorching black wind into the trailer, where they kicked the burning leaves on to the road. They knew there was no way out of Marysville, that their vehicle was about to go up, that the air wasn’t breathable, and, with every second that passed, that survival was ever more impossible. They caught each other’s eye and they laughed.

The laughter stopped when Terry found the plastic petrol canister. It was scorching to the touch and had swollen to the point of bursting. He threw it as far as he could into the hot pandemonium and they climbed back into the pick-up, driving as far as possible. They bumped over some trees and came to a stop at the centre of a traffic island. Sharen looked at Terry. He smiled back, calmly, and she remembers feeling overwhelmed by trust. Behind them, a church exploded into a ball of fire.

They were soon joined by their friend John Carpenter, who’d knocked on their car window. He’d been sheltering beneath a bridge over a small river. Two weeks ago, Sharen knew, his daughter had given birth.

“We’re going to make it, John,” Sharen promised him. “We’ve both got our beautiful granddaughters and we’re going to make it.”

Outside, they watched the trees bouncing along the ground as the fire-front swept up the hills. The Corner Cupboard – where, in a different world a few hours ago, they’d nibbled at salmon salads – caught fire. Then the shopping centre, the general store, the service station. They sat there and watched the whole of Marysville burn.

Sharen turned on the radio. “It’s 8.30pm,” said the announcer. “And Marysville, Buxton and Nargathon are under threat from ember attacks.”

Sharen laughed, “I think it’s a bit more than a threat!”

For an hour or so, they listened to the explosions of gas canisters, the falling trees and the screams of dying animals in the bush. As the wind finally dropped away, they watched countless fires burning through the sickly yellow smoke. There was a knock at the window. It was another friend, Rod Liesfield. He hugged Sharen. His arms were burned.

“Elizabeth and the boys are gone,” he said.

“Oh thank God for that,” Sharen replied. “You wouldn’t want them to be here.”

“No,” he said. “They’re gone.”

The wall of fire that burnt Marysville that night was 330ft high. It travelled at speeds of up to 120kmh, burned at 1,200C and created blasts of exploding gases that erupted in lateral pulses as large as 600 metres. The radiated heat alone was so fierce it was capable of killing people 400 metres away. In May, fire ecologist Dr Kevin Tolhurst told the Royal Commission currently being held into the events of 7 February that in just a few hours enough energy was produced to supply Victoria’s entire industrial and domestic needs for a year.

Bushfires of this ferocity can create their own weather in the form of hurricane-force winds and even lightning. The wind on 7 February was so strong that embers from the main front were igniting spot fires 35km away. It also had a blowtorch effect. One local, sheltering in Marysville’s lake, had to repeatedly duck as the flames blown from the neighbouring school covered the surface of the water in a solid sheet. Firefighters reported incidents of the front burning up one side of a road and, minutes later, returning down the other. Police believe the fire at Murrindindi Mill (which, due to a sudden change in wind direction, burned the town twice) was started deliberately. It was just one of around 400 separate fires, which killed 173 people, injured 414 and displaced 7,562. Thirty-four residents of Marysville didn’t survive that night. Terry and Sharen Donovan were friends with 22 of them.

By lunchtime the next day, Terry and Sharen had finally been evacuated. Marysville was declared a crime scene, and would be sealed off completely until 23 March. Only two local men were allowed to remain, to help the authorities locate and identify the dead. One of them was a veteran plumber, Bruce Ackerman. Bruce had spent the night defending both his house and those of some of his neighbours. Having spent 17 years as a volunteer firefighter (he retired in 1999), Bruce’s hilltop house was more fire-ready than most. He’d built on a concrete slab, installed double-glazing, established a wide, lush lawn and removed 27 dangerously combustible native trees from the immediate area. His first true idea of how desperate the night had been came at dawn, when his doze was interrupted by shouting. His 25-year-old son Jared had just discovered the remains of Bruce’s best friend’s wife and her son. Like so many, Liz and Dalton Fiske had died in their bathroom.

Throughout his plumbing career, Ackerman had been in almost every bathroom in Marysville. Even though he knew the idea was “lunacy, a one-way ticket to death”, he realised that most people believed it was the best place to seek shelter. Bruce volunteered to help the police in their hunt while he also worked on restoring water to the town.

That morning, his son Jared had also stumbled across a popular local man, lying in his paddock with his feet burned off. Bruce located the man’s wife – only a small part of her skull wasn’t destroyed. Next, he identified the corpse of the woman who used to serve him coffee at the weekend. She’d collapsed in the street, eight and a half months pregnant. He then found another close friend with her two daughters in the outdoor spa he’d installed for them. He lifted the lid to find the three of them huddled together. All of their limbs had burnt away. Then there were two tourists who’d been driving through the woods. From the scene you could guess what had happened to them: they’d been blocked by a falling tree and had turned, only to be blocked again. The car’s wheels and gearbox had melted. All that remained of the holidaymakers and their dog were small pieces of bone.

Nine months later, the eucalyptuses and mountain ash in theforests that surround Marysville have sprouted a soft fuzz of green, like tentative, early-adolescent stubble. But beneath this strange fur, the trees themselves remain black and, shorn of branches. They look emaciated and deathly. The afternoon sun washes through them in a mist of ghostly white. The road from Melbourne takes you through many miles of these hushed, charred sentinels before you come across the town itself. Because the fire bubbled the paint from the surface of the “Welcome to Marysville” sign, the only indication that you’re anywhere at all is the dozens of parking spaces that line the road. For a moment, it’s confusing – this is just a crossroads, a clearing in the woods, and yet it has the traffic infrastructure of a small town. Then you see an old singed advert for the absent Ruby’s Restaurant, and you know.

Around 50 houses have been rebuilt. There’s a bakery, a cafe and a newly opened Foodworks supermarket. The sweet shop and the post office are operated from what look like steel shipping crates. Where there were once elaborate homes, ski lodges, spas, restaurants and boutique hotels, there are now just gigantic scraped rectangles of red earth, with the great shadows of charred and crippled trees falling across them. Everywhere you walk there are sad, orphaned relics – lone mailboxes, a decorative urn, a pizza oven, a sign on a knee-high gate in the middle of an empty patch of scrub that says, THIS PROPERTY NO SMOKING. The soft, aching beauty inherent in ruins is not in evidence here. There’s nothing tender or poignant about this scene; there’s a violence in the razed spaces of Marysville. Even after all these months, its wounds are still raw and shocking and open.

I meet Terry and Sharen on the patch of land where their home and their four holiday cottages, the Dalrymples, used to stand. We sit and talk among the ash, charcoal and fallen trees, as the sky darkens and squadrons of plump flies buzz at our faces. Down by our feet is the melted and blackened nub of the hose which was in Terry’s hands when Sharen pointed to the lava-like sky in horror.

Unlike some, they’ve never considered leaving the town, and are currently staying in a nearby temporary village. Those who have left, Sharen says, are finding it harder to recover. “Most of us could talk about the fire for the rest of our lives. I know that sounds weird, but it’s how you cope with it. If I went to another town, I could share it with someone once, but after that they just wouldn’t want to hear it. I’d feel like a victim. Whereas if I stay, I can share all my sad things and my happiness that we’re alive, and feel like a survivor.”

One benefit of the destruction being so total, she says, is that without the old landmarks it’s harder for sad memories to be triggered. “I’ve heard people say they feel they should be sadder than they are, and I can understand that. My friend Liz died and I’d usually see her in the supermarket. But there’s no supermarket now, so there’s no memories.” There’s a silence. “I don’t know,” she says, apparently now unconvinced of the theory. “It still doesn’t feel real. It really doesn’t.”

The idea that the bereaved should feel sadder than they currently feel seems common among the survivors. There’s a hypothesis going around the community that the weight of their grief is such that their normal psychological processes have become temporarily overwhelmed. They fear that once enough of the emotion has worked through the system, their sorrow will kick in again and they’ll buckle, suddenly, with the force of it. Bruce has heard the idea, too. “Once reality strikes, that’s the danger period,” he tells me, his eyes wide and rimmed with red.

For some, he notes, the buckling has already come. “A lot of people aren’t coping,” he says. “There are marriages not doing too well, there have been nervous breakdowns. I know two people who were chronic alcoholics – bottle of gin for breakfast types – who hadn’t drank for 13 and 11 years. They’re back on the grog.” He says he recently met one old friend whose new house is almost finished. “I said, ‘Your place is looking great.’ He said, ‘Is it?’ I said, ‘Yes, you’ve just been up there.’ ‘Have I?’ He’s not himself. He’s confused. And there’s so many people in that boat.”

In August, the royal commission into the causes and responses of the Black Saturday fire issued a 360-page interim report. In 35 days of hearings, it had heard from 87 witnesses, held 26 community meetings with 1,200 locals and analysed 1,260 public submissions. It was highly critical of the authorities, finding that the command structure of both the CFA and the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s fire agency broke down. The threat wasn’t passed down from the high command. The locals weren’t warned. The report made 51 recommendations, the most notable of which was a “reinterpretation” of Australia’s previously sacrosanct “stay or go” policy. Whereas preparing your home for fire and defending used to be recommended as the safest option, from now on, residents would be urged to flee. This, said an editorial in the next day’s edition of Victoria’s The Age newspaper, was a “revolutionary change”. It came only after submissions from experts such as academic Frank Campbell, who told the commission, “The fact is inescapable: in a severe fire, houses are not refuges. They are fuel.”

Back in Marysville, the insurance payments are slowly being paid out, and rebuilding will continue way beyond this summer, which meteorologists are predicting will see even worse bushfire conditions than 2009. Bruce Ackerman, with his extraordinary portfolio of seats on local committees, has a remarkably well-informed perspective on the town’s structural recovery. “Initially, in the press release we said it would take two years, but I knew it would be five,” he says. “Then we educated people it would be five years, but I know it will be 10.” His assessment of the town’s spiritual recovery is starker yet. “Oh, we will never get over this,” he says. “Never, never, never.

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