On a balmy afternoon in April with no breeze and a gentle golden autumn sun illuminating the landscape, we visited some of the worst fire damaged areas of ‘Black Saturday’ – February 7th, 2009. The peaceful atmosphere of the day was very different from the 46 (c) degree heat and terribly strong winds in which over 170 people died in furnace like temperatures and a hurricane of rapidly moving fire. Two towns in our ‘backyard’, Kinglake and Marysville – were hard hit. We decided to visit them today to see the damage first hand.
The area around both towns is extensively burnt. Kinglake has a population of just under 1500 people, whilst the population of Marysville is about six hundred. This number in Marysville probably doubles when you take into account the large number of guest houses and motels that flourished in this mountain retreat.
Both towns are utterly devastated. Neither has a main street anymore – the shops, stores, petrol stations and community centres have all been burned to the ground. Many houses in both towns have been destroyed and all that remains is a chimney standing like a sentinel over the ruins and a conflagration of twisted metal roofing, bricks and building materials lying in a heap at ground level. Every now and then, for no explicable reason, there is an untouched house while buildings on either side have been totally destroyed. Bushfires seem to burn houses randomly. Perhaps it is luck that some have survived; more likely it is because of someone’s hard work in protecting their property and unbelievable courage in standing up to the fire and fighting to protect what they own.
On one hand, we felt guilty about looking in on other people’s misfortune. Many people had an Australian flag flying at their gate and others had signs proclaiming their identification with the local community and desire to fight for the future. We took care not to take photos of individual properties.
On the other hand, seeing this devastation with our own eyes, gave us a real sense of the hardship that people were experiencing and we were glad to have been able to provide some support through donations.
In both towns, there were people like us – driving quietly along and viewing the damage. No one said very much – their eyes were wide open and awe struck at the extent of the devastation. The environment looked just like pictures of scenes from villages damaged by shellfire in World War 1. Some people seemed to be interested in individual sites like a house, or a church where a heat blistered sign still showed some information about the name and denomination. Perhaps, some like us, were reminiscing about places where they had stayed or visited at some time in the past. Occasionally people would stop and take a photo of the road, the burnt forest or a blackened panorama. In one place at Marysville, a melted street light stood as a silent example of the ferocity of the flames.
Within all of this damage, there is already progress. Teams of workers have sections of the towns closed off and they are removing rubble to prepare for rebuilding.
Nature, as always, has already started to make repairs. Just ten weeks after the fires, trees are beginning to coppice and tree ferns are sending up new fronds in the shape of walking sticks. Their new bright green coloured growth is a distinct contrast to the charcoal blackened background of the tree trunks in the burnt forest.