Australia Felix, as Victoria used to be designated, is in shock and disbelief at the loss of life and property in the bushfires over the weekend- 103 lives lost and still counting. Shock at the sheer numbers; and disbelief, at least sitting here in the north-east suburbs of Melbourne that all this destruction was occuring in areas that we might drive through on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive less than fifty kilometres away. It’s a cool morning: there’s not even a whiff of smoke on the air; the sky is clear; the sun has none of that sullen reddened glow that indicates that there’s fire somewhere.
The people of Port Phillip in the 1840s would have been aware of fires, but not fires of the magnitude we’ve seen this past weekend. Most reports of fire in the Melbourne newspapers of the early 1840s related to house and shop fires fires within the town boundaries. For settlers further out, fires started through lightning or were lit by the aborigines either as an act of depredation against a particular settler, or as part of land and food management. Looking through my summaries of two years of the Port Phillip Herald, I can find only two mentions of bush-fires – both in January 1842- and interestingly both involve the natives. The first report was of a fire at Port Lincoln in South Australia, which was caused when the Resident Magistrate there asked the natives into town at the full of the moon to receive rations of flour; some arrived with fire-sticks and a fire was started, although it was not clear whether the fire was accidental or not. The second report, also in January 1842, made a correction to earlier reports that the blacks at Mr Bathes’ property in Westernport had fired four acres of barley and fencing. In fact, instead of causing the fire, they had tried to extinguish it, and chief Gellibrand in particular was singled out for conducting himself in the most praiseworthy manner.
Bushfire seasons come and go- I can, for instance, remember driving with my mother up to Warrandyte in 1962 to collect my father who had been working on fire-breaks with his earthmoving machinery in the fires there. Every time I drive past Lara on the way to Geelong, I remember the people who died in their cars on the Princes Freeway in 1969. But every few decades in Victoria, there are huge, state-wide conflagrations of a completely different magnitude. This weekend was such a conflagration.
When reading through the newspapers of 1840s Port Phillip, it is instructive to remember that for white settlers, this was a new colony, and the vagaries of temperature, rain, snow, bushfire were still largely unknown. Black Thursday on 6 February 1851 was the first recorded widespread blaze, covering a quarter of what is now known as Victoria including Portland, the Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Twelve lives are recorded lost, along with over a million sheep.
People of my parent’s generation still speak of “Black Friday” of 13 January 1939, the day that until last Saturday held the record for the highest recorded temperature. My father recalls seeing the ranges surrounding Healesville silhouetted with fire; just last week I was speaking to someone who mentioned that her mother, having just given birth, was wheeled out onto the balcony of the city hospital, from where she could see the Dandenongs alight. Seventy-one people died in the fires which devastated Noojee, Woods Point, Omeo, Warrandyte and Yarra Glen.
And then Ash Wednesday, 16th February 1983- well within my memory. A few days earlier there had been a huge dust-storm that rolled across Melbourne, then Ash Wednesday itself. I recall watching, transfixed, the unfolding disaster on television, hour after hour, then walking out into the front garden in the dark with the sky glowing, ashes falling, and wondering if the whole world was going to combust.
And so, onto this last weekend. On the Friday night, after a day of about 30 degrees, we watched the news where authorities were warning of extreme heat and fire danger on Saturday and worst bushfire conditions in Australia’s history. It was difficult to believe- it was still with no breeze at all, and not unduly hot. But, oh, things are so dry: Melbourne has been in drought for many years and has had the second-driest January rainfall figures on record- just one millimetre of rain compared to a January average of 48 mm. The Saturday itself was oppressively hot, reaching the highest ever recorded temperature of 46.4 degrees. When you opened the door, it was like opening a fan-forced oven with the rush of dry heat and wind. The wind got stronger and stronger with trees bending, dust whipping, but there was still no sign or smell of fire. We did notice a large, towering white cumulus cloud to the north, but by then it had clouded over, and we thought that it must have been a storm cloud. Then, at about six o’clock, the cool change came through- even a few spatterings of rain. We went to bed aware that there were still fires, that there were fears that what had been the fingers of the blaze would become the palm of the blaze on a much wider front once the wind swung around, but that perhaps it hadn’t been quite as bad as they predicted.
By the next morning, things had changed completely. Fires that we hadn’t even been aware of, at Kinglake, at Marysville had wiped out the towns; 27 dead, maybe 40, then 65, then 93 and now over 100. These are much-loved places. Kinglake, some 20 kms away was where we had a camp every year in my long-ago born-again Christian days; I fell off a motor-bike there and still have the scar on my ankle; I drove there at about 50 kms a hour in my old Morris Major with a couple of girlfriends as my first foray as a new driver on country roads.
Marysville, home of all the Mary-guesthouses (Marylands, Mary-Lyn etc) built in the 1920s in mock-tudor style and the prettiest little main street with huge deciduous trees, with a crystalline creek fringed with tree-ferns running through it. We went there for September holidays at Marylands when I was a child in the 1960s; I’ve camped beside the Steavenson River; walked through the bush bird-watching, my husband and I went there about five years ago, stayed at a guest-house, ate at the pub, visited their historical society.
And St Andrews- famed for its weekend market; Sunday lunch at the pub. Chum Creek near Healesville- my father spent a couple of years up there in the 1930s/40s with his grandparents, attended the primary school, lived through bushfires there, battled the blackberries and bracken there. I wonder if his house is still standing?
There’s grief, disbelief, and a degree of helplessness about it all. In recent years there’s been a change of attitude about staying to defend your house- they no longer force people to evacuate, but encourage householders to develop a fire-plan of clearing around their houses, dealing with ember attacks, wetting down the house etc. The common wisdom is to evacuate early if you’re going to leave, or else stay and defend a well-prepared house from fire after the main front has gone through. People know all this; the whole state was in a heightened sense of readiness, fire-plans were made, people were ready to stay and defend and yet, in the middle of the noise, smoke, heat obviously the fear is just too much to bear and people flee. There’s much more sadness to come.