Thursday, February 12, 2009 11:48:15 AM
Growing up in Melbourne means learning about bushfires. In primary school in the 70s I learned what to do (don't run away from a fire, stay in a car if you can, drive through the fire). And later the advice was updated, and repeated. I learned more about how to survive, to avoid starting a fire, to deal with one, because these were lessons that schoolkids needed and were given.
Not quite a teenager yet, I remember the Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983 - the afternoon smoke turned the sky dark and red 50 miles away in the afternoon and set off all the fire alarms, listening most of the night to ABC radio who combined a good dose of journalism and talkback radio with an important information service vital to many people.
I knew people whose holiday homes were burned in that fire. Later I had friends who had lost everything, and had to rebuild from scratch - and were moving out of a shed into a house again only several years later. I remember going to a town a decade later and realising what it had meant when they had said that night "it didn't exist anymore".
Something like 80 people died in those two days - the worst disaster since the Black Friday fires of 1939, which I knew only as the reason why the big hill at the farm had one tree and a bunch of burnt-out old tree trunks, rather than the forest that covered so much of the surrounding area.
My car broke down on the highway heading into Euroa the night of the Strathbogie fires, I think in 1990. The tow-truck driver came and got it, and was then called out to fight fires for the night. Not being a firie, with the train line cut in country town, there was not a lot I could do but look up the hill on the other side of the freeway bypass, where occasional points of flame showed through the smoke that turned the sky dark even in the day. I thought of that night again when I drove past the other side of the Strathbogie ranges recently.
I recall a colleague describing the Canberra fires coming within a few blocks of his home, arriving in a new country for a new job and reading the next month of how 5 volunteers died when they were trapped by a fire, a boss describing how she fled the Dandenong ranges with her dogs, and felt lucky to have made it out, another boss describing how she accidentally set off a grass fire that blew out of control in minutes.
I remember the story of the man who made the fatal mistake of trying to outrun a grass fire with his grandkids in Kilmore, and died outside their perfectly safe home. The terrible mistake people made of trying to shelter in water tanks, years of fire warnings and Total Fire Ban days being announced all day on radio and television. I remember the feeling of being inside a fire dugout in the mountain forests - a dark, dank, terrifying place that just might save your life if a fire broke out where nothing else would give you a chance.
Last month a friend of mine talked about having a good day at work - a number of fires had broken out, but all were brought under control relatively easily. It made for an intersting day producing the ABC radio broadcast (the same one I listened to so many years ago, the one I listened to when he was producing it, as it described the Omeo fires a few years ago). But it was always going to be a long and dangerous fire season.
But what happened last weekend, when I was more or less disconnected from the news, was an incredible shock. Not the size - there have been plenty of enormous fires, probably bigger ones. Not the fact that friends of mine have lost everything - that has happened before, and can happen again. But the heat, the wind, and the staggering power of the fires are something that unfortunately I can imagine all too easily. A terrifying vision of hell on earth that is the worst things my mind can conjure up.
And the terrible toll. The most lethal fires ever in Autralia, with 185 people dead. A (hopefully not really) partial list of 28 places, many of of them tiny hamlets, most of them places I know. Reading the toll, from each place, with some names.
The realisation that I know someone on the list.