Black Saturday: What We Went Through
It's been over two months since the greatest peacetime disaster in Australian history turned my world upside down. Not an historical event that anyone wants their name associated with. "Black Saturday", the media is calling it. I remember it as "Hell on Earth".
The bushfires that devastated Victoria on the 7th of February 2009 all but wiped our tiny little community of Strathewen off the face of the planet.
For seven generations my family have lived and worked on the land in the Valley of Ewen, and in one horrific afternoon any trace of that past, that family history, was destroyed. In the space of a heartbeat, we lost everything.
It was around 3pm when the heavy cloud of smoke started to drift closer to home. It hung thick in the air and I was already finding it difficult to breathe. The hellish black cloud spread over the iconic Mount Sugarloaf like a warning that none of us heeded.
The smoke turned the sun blood red whilst casting an eerie golden glow over the landscape. At this point I was alone at home unaware of the real danger looming just beyond the mountain.
When Dad, Nyall and Earle did return home, I was still playing fetch with Venus. Throwing her favourite squeaky toy and taking photographs to show everyone later on. We still weren't sure that the fire was heading for us. We put fire overalls on, grabbed our masks and gloves and prepared ourselves for the worst. Thankfully mum had been in hospital overnight for chemo and due to a high temperature was unable to return home that day as planned. Rikki and Mal had also left early with Aidan, just in case.
I had already opened all the gates to the property so that if the fire did come, the horses would be able to run to wherever they thought was the safest place to ride it out. It probably saved their lives. Earle took the Australian flag down and put it in his fire overalls. If we were going to survive then so was the flag.
We had a fire plan in place if we chose to stay and defend the property and we executed the plan perfectly. No plan, however perfect, could have stopped that fire.
I'd already packed some things ready to put in the car but by this stage it was too late to evacuate and I came to the conclusion that there was no point putting everything in the car because it would only burn in the fire anyway. I thought the house would be safer. I was wrong!
My car made it out of there with barely a scratch. I kick myself everyday for that. Saving something would have made the other losses a little easier to bear.
The smoke and embers hit us long before the fire did. The boys were trying frantically to stamp out any embers that came close to the house whilst dad got the pumps ready and I turned the cars around ready for the mad dash to the dam. If it came to that.
I was on the phone to Georgina when dad got a call from work saying that the fire had jumped containment lines in Humevale and that it was heading straight for us. This was the first warning of the fire coming our way and the only time we knew that we were in danger. Within two minutes, the fire was on us.
The flames rose higher than the mature gums on the mountain, fire engine red. Like the greatest nightmare of hell. The smoke turned day to night and spot fires started everywhere. Down the driveway and up the top of the hills on either side of us. We were cornered. The wind was blowing with a hellish fury in all directions and the heat was so intense.
We had no time to look for pets, neighbours, or even each other. We could only scream for each other to get to the cars as there was no choice but to try to run. We could never defend ourselves with hoses and sprinklers against that nightmare.
I heard dad scream at us to get to the cars so we ran, screaming for Earle as we did because he had made his way to the front of the house and we couldn't see a thing. There was nothing we could do except try to save ourselves. And each other.
My heart was pounding as we made our mad dash to the dam in the cars. Dad was screaming to slow down as I nearly ran up the back of Nyall. We drove into the paddock, parked by the bank and ran for the water, only stopping to remove our boots. We threw the wallets and phones onto the bank hoping they would be there if we survived so we could call mum and tell her we made it out of there and that we were ok.
We swam out towards the middle of the dam, taking our overalls off as we swam because they were weighing us down. Nyall kept his on but Earle turned his into a flotation device. I remember panicking that the water would heat up and that we would boil to death but dad said the water was too deep. Fire was starting to burn all around us now, racing down the hill towards us. Earle was holding dad as he isn't a strong swimmer and he wasn't able to hold himself and dad afloat for much longer.
A decision was made to move closer to the edge where we could stand and hold the woollen blanket over our heads. The boys and dad got their first and by now we were sharing the dam with a frightened deer and some kangaroos. All finding comfort in the cool water.
Then the front hit...
I was still out in the water when the full force of the fire storm hit. Hot embers and black smoke attacked us with a ferocity that is hard to put into words. I couldn't breathe. Every time I tried I felt my lungs burning like crepe paper. I heard the others screaming my name but in the smoke it was difficult to see where I was. At this point I thought I was going to die.
There were no ifs, buts or maybes. This was how I would die. At the age of 27 with an unfinished life. It was a fleeting thought, but it was there and it was very real. Then instinct took over and there was no more time for thoughts.
I swam underwater, only coming up twice for the tiny bit of air that I could get before reaching the others. If they were any further away I don't think I would have made it. The blanket became my worst nightmare when the claustrophobia kicked in but it saved our lives.
We spent two hours under that old woollen blanket, going under the water every thirty seconds or so to clear the smoke that had formed and to put out the hot embers that stuck to the wool. After about an hour or so we were able to check what was happening outside around us but then the wind would pick up and blow burning embers towards us again. We would then have to go back under the safety of the blanket.
I think the shock hit us eventually because we all started making stupid jokes about needing a beer and starting to shake due to the cold. I still had no idea whether or not we would make it out of there alive. Even later that night. The reassurance I got from the others pulled me through. I honestly think that if there had been one less of us, or one more, no one would have made it out of there alive.
Dad's car caught fire and we were so worried that it would explode that we moved along the dam a bit. Nyall got out and grabbed the phones and wallets just before they melted or caught fire and used the cooler bag we had brought with us to put the fire out on dad's car so his wouldn't catch fire.
All of a sudden it was daylight again. The smoke had lifted and we assumed it was safe to come out of the blanket. Nyall tried to make a phone call but with no reception he had to walk towards home to call out. I remember dad and I swearing at him and yelling because it was taking so long. Even then I didn't feel safe enough and thought he might die trying to make a phone call.
I really thought everyone we knew was dead. Ian, Darren, Bill and anyone else who stayed to defend. I didn't know how we survived, let alone anyone else. Now knowing the full story, a lot of people didn't survive. A lot of friends didn't survive...
After what felt like a lifetime but was probably no more than five minutes, I saw Nyall return with my car and Rikki's car. I knew then that someone else must have made it. Ian and Darren got out of the car and I was so relieved to see them alive. I think they felt the same.
Bill had managed to save Rosemary's house and the place became a shelter for survivors. As we made our way out of the dam and across the paddock towards the house Steve came down from the top of the hill and told us his tale of survival in the swimming pool. A story many others shared as it turned out.
I remember looking around at the total destruction that took only a short time to occur. It was like a bomb had been dropped on us. There was nothing but blackness and red coals.
About an hour later we risked going back up home to see if anything was left. The place was unrecognisable. There were fires still burning but the house was gone. The once towering gums were nothing but black sticks poking out of the once fertile earth. It looked like a war zone. Like something out of a disaster movie.
Nothing could have prepared us for that sight. Not even living through it. My first priority was to see if any of the animals survived. I didn't hold much hope. As I made my way around Rikki's tank in the back yard I broke. I'd never felt such relief in my life as I turned the corner and saw two horses standing there, frightened but unharmed. I broke into tears as I thanked whoever was listening that two of my babies had made it out alive. It was something at least. We couldn't find the other two horses and there was no sign of Venus or the cats. It was too dark to look and still too dangerous to be out there.
The view on the way back to Rosemary's was incredible. That's the only word for it. It was the first time we stopped and looked around us properly and the first chance we got to think about what we had just witnessed and lived through. The hills were black as night and red hot embers were burning everywhere. They looked like city lights.
All night was a paranoid waiting game. Whenever a tree would fall in the area it sounded like a bomb dropping and exploding. The house was full of smoke and made it hard to breathe and every time I closed my eyes to try and sleep I would see flames. I was still so fearful that the fire would return.
We could hear the fire brigade trying to clear the road with chainsaws and bobcats all night and I kept asking when they would get us out of there. I didn't want to stay there, everything was still burning around and I just wanted to go somewhere safe. Having never been personally involved in such a disaster I didn't realize how long it would take for rescue. Now I know we were lucky to get out of there when we did. Others had to wait all day.
They came at 6am and it was still dark outside and the air was thick with smoke. It was like a dream. A nightmare I hadn't woken up from. We piled into my car and drove. The road was barely a road anymore, just a dirt track with trees down everywhere. We passed several fire trucks and burnt out vehicles on the way. It was still too dark to see anything clearly. Magic hour they call it. An eerie light that heightened all our senses. Especially fear.
I remember a horse standing on the side of the road, stunned and unmoving, but alive. We passed the great community hall, although no longer there I know exactly where it once stood and will again. We made our way to the Arthurs Creek fire station, unaware that the worst was still to come.
The station became a meeting point for anyone who survived and loved ones looking for their relatives. Every time a car pulled up my heart would skip a beat as I waited to see who else had survived. Eventually news of the less fortunate filtered in and the amount of close friends who lost their lives is still too unbearable to think of. The weeks to come are just a blur. We found the other two horses, alive and unharmed but the dog and cats weren't so lucky. We found their remains when we could eventually get back to the property. A heavy weight on my heart I carry with me every day.
The healing process is only just beginning for those of us involved. There is no closure, we have nothing to go back to and the rebuilding process will take years. I find it hard to explain to people who weren't there or who didn't lose everything that it's not as simple as going back to work and getting on with our lives. For some of us there is nothing to get on with. Jobs were lost, livelihoods ruined and although it's been two months, who says that grief should have a time limit.
For me, a career, money, and materialistic things no longer matter. I had all that, a lifetime's worth, and I lost it all in a heartbeat. We all did. What's more important is spending time with the people I love. My family and my friends. We will go back and start a new history in Strathewen. It will take a long time to forget the events of "Black Saturday" and an even longer time to heal the scars. But I will make the most of my life. I have to. And we will rebuild.