To get my mind off pining for all the delightful and extravagant items I wish I could own, we decided to visit Marysville, a town which was almost wiped out by Victoria’s bushfires in 2009. I live quite close to where some of the smaller blazes continued out-of-control for a while, and Marysville is not too far away either. After the local communities had recovered a little and the fire threat had passed, visitors and tourists were encouraged to return. Adam and I had only moved back to my hometown about two months before the fires surrounded his own small community, which is nestled between Kinglake and Marysville. The town itself was basically untouched because of its unique location. His family (who run the gardens and tearooms on the property Australian poet C.J. Dennis lived for most of his life) stayed put throughout and were of great service right in the thick of things to their neighbours, fire crews and other officials. We visited them when it was safe to and were able to survey some of the destruction nearby — thick forested areas we were so used to were suddenly turned into bare hills with thousands of black posts sticking out, no greenery to be seen. It did appear lifeless and black, but the environment regenerates quite quickly after a fire, so much so that the contrast between bright green and charred trees is rather incredible. A friend who learnt under my own piano tutor composed a work called Forest Reborn which took shape and inspiration from the disaster, and from the hope found in the renewed life after. Today, seeing those forests figuratively ‘reborn’, his music made more sense than before.
We took a ramble about Bruno’s Sculpture Garden, to see how the artist, Bruno, had managed to rebuild. Most of his property was destroyed by the fires, but many damaged pieces of sculpture were repairable. Everything was a little less overgrown than before, but the spirit of the place was still right there. Bruno’s work is full of character and some of his influences are obvious. Adam had fun pointing out, among other things, the Fibonacci sequence around the head of one statue. I was moved by one particular sculpture of what appears to be Bruno and his wife, intimately embracing as the earth and tendrils rise up about them. The figures were naked, perhaps to show their loss and vulnerability, but the flora creeping about them suggested that their home and garden would slowly grow back and envelop them. It seemed a very comforting image, but also one that said “I’m not giving up”. Of course, I could be completely off the mark! After the gardens we drove up to Steavenson Falls, where we were again amazed at how far we could see, whereas before the bush would never have allowed such a view. By no means are we good camera-wielders but here’s a selection of images we took today:
It’s still odd to see these areas looking so different, and Marysville does feel ’emptier’. A lot of lovely new houses have replaced destroyed ones, but there is a quiet and sad feeling about the place. The whole catastrophe was quite close to us and most Victorians were bombarded with distressing imagery, and tales of survival or tragedy, for weeks on end. The day stands out to a lot of us, in a similar way that most of the world remembers where they were and what they were doing as they first heard about “9/11”, or the JFK assassination. But I might as well tell our own story:
It had been a very hot and dry summer with some record temperatures. You could call it a ‘heatwave’ but most of us are used to hot summers. We’re lucky to have an old commercial-strength air conditioner and never have to suffer too much. The week’s temperatures were around 40°C+ (110–120°F) in most parts of the state. The very day before February 7, the premier of Victoria had warned people to take care as conditions were expected to be the worst recorded. My father, ever safety-conscious, walked about the house and property, preparing hoses, masks, keeping valuables in easy reach, and in general just shaking his head and muttering about how bad a day he knew it was going to be. I brushed it off a bit and we carried on, sleeping in as much as possible so as not to have to be conscious for the stifling weather! By late morning we could feel the enormous winds and there was a very surreal and extreme feel about things. The radio was kept on but incoming reports were not sounding good. Fires had certainly sprung up, as expected, but for most the worst was soon to come. When I ventured out for a short while, absorbing the feeling of 47°C (116.6°F), I was met by a smoke haze and a rain of black leaves and debris. It was incredible how far the rubbish had blown. News of Kinglake being hit pretty hard came in, Adam called his family, and we went outside again to see a dark sky and a very red sun. The way we phrased it right there was that the sun looked like the moon. At some point one of our chickens seem to have succumbed to the heat and was doing rather poorly, so I decided to hold it afloat in full bathtub outside for a while and then drip-feed it some water. (It seemed to do the trick because the next day I couldn’t tell which chicken had been affected!)
There was nothing to be done but stay vigilant and keep up with reports in case where we live came up on the list of towns under direct threat. The scale of the fires was starting to be realised and news and images began pouring in of the destruction of Kinglake and other small towns. As most people put it, a huge fireball, not just large bushfires, had raged at incredible speeds over the mountain ranges. The winds and wind changes, in combination with tinder-dry conditions and extreme heat, produced conditions and fires that no one could’ve prevented or fought. The stories and footage cropping up was distressing and it was a shock to see places we knew flattened and black. Adam and I stayed up late and kept our radio-vigil; it delivered constant reports of areas under threat, and though we didn’t expect to be affected directly it was good to stay alert.
It was around 2am that we listened to a man who had called the station deliver news which went along the lines of, “there are two houses left standing in Marysville”. This seemed to be the very first time the town had been mentioned. Information couldn’t actually get through from that area and they were quite isolated, cut off from help. We looked at each other and simply said that it couldn’t be possible, that at least it had to be a gross exaggeration. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of an exaggeration at all. I left a note out for dad with this news, since he had lived there for a time doing carpentry work and the town was quite dear to him. He later found out most of the buildings he’d worked on were gone, but so was 90% of the town’s buildings. 10% of the population also lost their lives.
It was a horrible day. After the awful weekend was over fires were still out of control in areas close to us. Friends started to evacuate, sometimes from orders, sometimes as a precaution for the sake of their children, and sometimes because the stress of watching the blazes from the window would just become too much. At one point I took a drive and ended up behind a four-wheel drive whose occupant thought it a good idea to toss their lit cigarette out their window. Sparks flew everywhere. We were travelling along a dry highway surrounded by grass, 15km from fires burning at that moment. You can hardly live in this region and not be aware of the danger of sparks in hot conditions, so the driver’s behaviour seemed to be out of pure contempt. (The smoker’s habit seems to be one of contempt in any case, for oneself, others, and the environment, but we won’t get into that now.) Whether it seems petty or not, I called my father and gave him the license plate, asking him to report them. I just felt disgusted and incensed that in total fire ban conditions, where people were strongly encouraged not to even use any sort of machinery, someone could think it acceptable to litter and cause a huge spray of sparks so close to dry paddocks and scrub that could easily go up in flames. By the time I got home father had decided to call the radio and mention it, perhaps urging others not to do the same thing. He quickly handed me the phone and I found myself having an odd conversation about throwing cigarette butts out of ones car. Regardless of the habit, it’s unacceptable to litter, and unthinkable to litter in that way in those conditions. To quote directly, “The majority of the fires were ignited by fallen or clashing power lines or were deliberately lit. Other suspected ignition sources include lightning, cigarette butts, and sparks from a power tool.”
There were days when Adam’s township came under direct threat and he found himself unable to contact all his family. Life came to a bit of a standstill for people in the affected areas, relatives and friends in other areas were often desperate to get news of their displaced families. Smoke filled the air for weeks and at night we could often easily see huge red patches and flames on the surrounding mountains. Fire crews worked non-stop for nearly a whole month until the weather cooled, a little rain came, and most of the fires were extinguished. The worst bushfires Australia has ever known to have experienced caused death, displacement and horror, but the point of this writing has been to show one individual’s perspective and also an idea of how some areas look two years on.