Category Archives: bushfires

A pleasant Sunday afternoon trip to …Kinglake

I hadn’t revisited any of the places burnt out during the Black Saturday fires of 2009.  I think of them often though.  Standing in my dressing gown on foggy winter mornings as I go out to get the paper, I often think of Marysville where I spent several September school holidays as a child.  The air has that same cold, wet feel, and you can smell the soil and the trees.  I would dearly love to be able to return to stay in a little faux-Tudor guest house with a name starting ‘Mary…’.  Marylands, Mary Lyn- it wouldn’t matter really.  But the economics of the guest house concept, fire regulations, demands for ensuites and the sophistication that sneers at the joys of table-tennis and croquet etc. will conspire to make this an impossibility, I’m afraid.

But Kinglake is still there, just up the road a bit.  For a long time I felt reluctant to go there just to rubber-neck, and I still do feel a little voyeuristic.  But three years have passed, and I know that Kinglake is “open for business” and perhaps I don’t need to feel so diffident any more.

It’s still fairly clear as you drive along the Kinglake Rd that there has been a large fire here.  The bright green furze that grew onto the tree trunks over the first winter has now faded to a more normal eucalyptus green and many small sapling are growing underneath the burnt out trunks.

A number of bushfire-recovery services started up in the wake of the fires.  They are still there.

The Kinglake Ranges Rebuilding Advisory Centre and Community Facility

The new CFA (Country Fire Authority) building is big, new and prominent

The temporary village has almost been dismantled. You can see by the roads and power outlets that it had been much bigger

The sheer scale of the fire is most apparent when you see a whole mountain still bare covered with what looks like matchsticks.




Marysville site

Now that the mornings are getting colder, I often think of Marysville, one of the towns obliterated by the Black Saturday bushfires over a year ago.  We used to go to Marysville each September.   The cold smell of the air, freshly dug soil, the sound of the currawongs and the waft of open fires always brings Marysville to my mind, and I still really can’t quite believe that Marylands is no longer there.  I suppose that I should drive up there one day, but even now I feel uncomfortable about being a voyeur on other people’s pain.

But I’ve found a fantastic Flikr site for people to post copies of photographs of Marysville prior to the fires.

‘Silent and still’?

What you talkin’ about, Kevin?


From The Age:

Speaking from the abbey pulpit, Mr Rudd said the fires had been an “assault on the soul” for Australians.

“For Australians, the world suddenly became silent and still on Black Saturday, silent and still as we confronted the overwhelming power of nature and the overwhelming terror of fire,” he said.

“We, as Australians, were left speechless in its wake.”

Silent and still?  Not on that Saturday it wasn’t.  Not for the people actually in the fires, with the fire roaring and screaming over the hills towards them.  Not for the people of Melbourne, listening to the  chatter and urgency of radio reports all day that somehow seemed to miss the intensity and horror of it all.  Not when the wind changed.

Silent and still the next morning, perhaps.  When we woke to hear of whole, familiar places devastated; when the death toll kept rising and rising; when you realized that everyone knew someone.  That was when all meaning seemed to leach from everyday life, that was when we became speechless.

Let’s not rewrite it just for the sake of imagery and a good speech.

1851 Black Thursday

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria is having its centenary this year.  One of the aims of the founders of the society was to capture the stories of the early colonists of Port Phillip before they died.  I was flipping through some of the earliest volumes of its journal, and it is impressive to see papers given by people at their meetings who had been here (albeit as children) right from the start of Victoria’s settlement- just think of it: they would have seen and met these people of Port Phillip that I’ve read so much about.

At the 25th June and 3rd September meetings of the society in 1923,  a paper was read called “Reminiscences from 1841 of William Kyle- a pioneer. Communicated to and transcribed by Chas Daley”.    I hadn’t heard of William Kyle and I know nothing more about the paper than just this.  William Kyle was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1832 and came out to Port Phillip as a child with his father.  The paper extended over two editions of the Victorian Historical Magazine and traced through his arrival, life in the country and in Melbourne pre-gold rush with some fascinating descriptions of Aboriginal life on the edges of what are now the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, then right through to the latter years of the century (I’ll admit that I didn’t read the whole thing).

I was drawn to this description of Black Thursday of 1851, and perhaps to get yourself in the mood you should visit the State Library of Victoria page and have a good look at William Strutt’s painting.

And here’s how William Kyle remembered Black Thursday of 1851:

The floods of 1849, which were the result of a general rainfall throughout the colony, caused an excessively dense growth of vegetation, and much grass.  Little clearing had been done in the forests, and ring-barking trees was not yet in vogue, so that, after a very hot summer, the outbreaks of fire which swept throughout the land under the stimulus of a fierce hot wind caused the conflagration known as Black Thursday.  The fire spread with amazing rapidity.  Three-quarters of the colony was in a blaze.  The flames were so intense that trees two or three hundred yards away from the advancing wall of flame were shrivelled before the flames reached them.  In the unsettled districts there was little loss, but thousands of sheep and cattle succumbed.  The native game was almost annihilated.  The fire was so near Melbourne that the sky seemed to be a mass of floating fragments of bark and leaves ablaze with the intense heat.  Many people thought the Day of Judgment had surely come.  We could hardly breathe the stifling air.  The floating embers even set on fire some of the ships in the bay.

After the conflagration had exhausted itself the scene was one of intense desolation.  Nothing was visible but charred stumps and blackened smoking trees, bereft of all foliage.  No sound of bird, insect or animal was to be heard.  It was years before game was plentiful, and it was never so again near the settled districts after Black Thursday.  Fortunately, although there were the most wonderful escapes from death, there were not many human lives lost, owing to the sparseness of the population.

Sounds very, very familiar.


Reminiscences from 1841 of William Kyle, a pioneer’ Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol X, Dec 1925 No 4.

Before the storm

Like millions of other Victorians, today I received a text message from the police.  It read:

Extreme weather in Vic expected Mon night & Tues.  High wind & fire risk.  Listen to  Local ABC Radio for emergency updates. Do not reply to this msg. End.

It is a very still evening, just as it was before the Saturday of the bushfires a few weeks ago. It’s hard to believe that the wind is going to spring up at about midnight tonight, and blow all day tomorrow until it changes direction at about 5.00 p.m.  There are large bushfires still burning from three weeks ago which, although contained, could well jump containment lines and take off again- to say nothing of any new fires that might spring up.  I think of my parklands, the plantings along our watercourses and rivers – we are all so very, very dry.

A friend of mine at choir tonight lives in Hurstbridge, surrounded by bush, with only one road in and out.  “Keep safe” we say as she leaves, knowing that she could be plunged into a nightmare tomorrow- or maybe not.  Leave early; activate your bushfire plans we are warned; prepare for gale force winds we are advised.

We are uneasy.

Speeches at the Bushfire Memorial Service

People often decry the internet as a source of misinformation and ill-formed views, but  I reckon that talkbalk radio is even worse.  I only listen to talkbalk radio when I really can’t find anything else, like at 4.00 a.m. on Monday morning, when the ABC indulges in playing just two or three notes, intoning endlessly hour after hour; or when SBS and ABC news radio decide that they are both going to take exactly the same feed of English soccer.  So it was in desperation that I tuned in to talkback radio on Sunday night/Monday morning, and heard a woman talking about the Bushfire Memorial Service that morning.

She enjoyed the service, she said, but ” then one of those politicians got on, and said “remember this and vote for me at the next election””.

What?????? I didn’t hear that!!  But then, the next morning, I read the summary in The Age of the speeches given at the memorial.  When I looked at Kevin Rudd’s speech, I wondered why I bridled against it on hearing it on Sunday.  Had I, too, heard something that wasn’t said? As I heard it, he was making a claim that Australians have a particular claim on universal human values,  over and above that of other people, and that values like courage and compassion were Australian values.  Yet, The Age report said no such thing.

Then I noticed the “This is an edited extract of the speech” disclaimer at the bottom.  So here is Rudd’s full speech, with the parts that were omitted from The Age summary in bold.

Fellow members of the great Australian family.

When the histories of nations are written, there are times which sorely test each nation’s soul.

Whether through the carnage of human conflict or through the terrifying forces of nature unleashed.

This nation Australia has just been put to such a test.

And you the people of Australia, you the people of Victoria, and most especially you the people of these fire-ravaged communities – you have faced the test – and you have not been found wanting.

As a people, we weep for the lost.

We tend the injured.

We console the suffering.

And yet our work has barely begun.

In meeting this great test, as a people, and as a nation, we have drawn deep on our ancient values and given them fresh voice in our modern age.

Values of courage.

Values of compassion.

Values of steely resilience.

These are Australian values. Values also of our deepest common humanity.

For on Black Saturday, what we saw at work was the worst of nature yet the best of humanity.

What is courage?

We know it by instinct. We see it. We feel it.

Courage is a fire fighter standing before the gates of hell – unflinching, and unyielding and with eyes of steel saying this: “Here I stand, I can do no other”.

Courage is neighbour saving neighbour.

Courage is stranger saving stranger.

Courage is all these things as brave women and men in their lives and in their deeds these last weeks have written a new chapter in our nation’s story.

A new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old.

Courage. And compassion.

In recent days, we have witnessed unspeakable suffering.

We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children, family and friends and neighbours.

All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal.

But simply know this: you who suffer are not alone.

This great Australian family, here assembled and across the nation today, is with you. And led by an almighty army of Australian volunteers stretched across this vast continent.

And beyond our shores, know too that you are also surrounded by an ocean of compassion from every country on God’s earth.

In some countries, tragedy exposes the fault lines in a nation.

The strong abandoning the weak; one region indifferent to the sufferings of another, one culture uncaring as to the needs of another.

But ours is a different nation. Our nation has been as one.

Australia – a nation of compassion. Courage and compassion. And the third of these great values: resilience.

What we have seen in each of these communities is resilience writ large.

Resilience reflected in the absolute and resolute determination to rebuild.

And this is where the nation comes in.

A solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild: brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community.

Governments of all persuasions and at all levels have failed communities in the past. Let us resolve not to fail these communities in the future.

To say this is easy. To do this will be hard and the path will be uneven.

But let us resolve, learning from the mistakes of the past, to rebuild together.

To rebuild Marysville, Narbethong and Toolangi.

To rebuild Kinglake, Kinglake West and Flowerdale.

Strathewen, St Andrews and Humevale.

Wandong, Heathcote Junction and Upper Plenty.

Churchill, Callignee and Koornalla.

Steels Creek and Yarra Glen.

These names and others that are now etched deep in the nation’s memory.

For the truth is this: each of these communities is Australia – and we would be a lesser Australia without any of them. So let us to the task.

Last Sunday as I travelled on the road to Kinglake, it was as if I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I spoke with a young woman from a community nearby who had lost everything but survived. She told me she had spent yesterday with her Dad, starting to clean up the wreckage.

She told me the first thing they did was to plant a charred sapling in the burnt ground as their flag pole – and put up our nation’s flag.

She told me she and her Dad then sat quietly together just looking at the flag – and then to work.

Our nation’s flag now flies across the charred remains of these precious communities – flags by the hundred.

Flags of courage. Flags of compassion. Flags of resilience. Flags of hope.

Great Australian values that will see Australia through this great testing of our nation’s soul.

So let us resolve today that from this time forth, on every 7th of February, this nation’s flag will fly at half mast, this nation will pause for a moment’s silence, to honour those lost and to reaffirm afresh, this great rebuilding for the future.

As we rise together in hope, from the ashes of despair.

I don’t know about you, but all this flag-worship and jingoism still makes me uncomfortable, and I find myself wondering if it was only omitted from the Age report of the speech for space reasons. After all, the photo in the middle of the page could have been cropped by a few centimetres, and the whole speech could have been transcribed.  But it wasn’t.

The following day, there was a letter to the editor asking why  Auntie Joy Murphy’s speech had not been transcribed.  I found myself wondering the same thing.  It was one of the first speeches, before people felt able to applaud, and yet I thought it was the most comforting of them all.  It did not have the ra-ra “let’s get in there and build, build, build!!” tone of many of the other speeches.

This is just from memory because I can’t find a transcript- so it might be just as inaccurate as the talkback caller in the middle of the night.  What I heard was that she spoke as a woman from Healesville, which although not burnt out, was surrounded by the fires on the Saturday.  She spoke also as a Wurundjeri elder.  Her people had burnt the land every seven years, she said, but what happened on Saturday was not that sort of burning- instead of healing the land, it  tortured the land.  (And this is something that I don’t think is being said often enough: that the fire on Saturday was not the bushfire that we smell on the breeze and see as a ring around the sun every year; it was something different.)  But she also said that the bush will grow back, by itself.  (And that’s something that our men-are-from-Mars politicians are trying to rush through too: the urge to get in there and fix it, while the country itself, in its own time, will heal itself).

And there’s something very comforting, very timeless in that.