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Black Saturday: paying our respects, 10 years on

Posted on : Thursday, 7 February 2019

On the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) would like to remember and pay respect to the 173 people who died in the fires, the thousands who lost their homes, and the effort and strength required to rebuild lives and communities in the past 10 years.

 

More than 7,000 people were displaced by the fires and many more suffered, and continue to suffer, psychological and physical trauma. The damage to the environment and wildlife was severe.
 

Most Australians will remember where they were and what they were doing on that fateful day, and for some the 10th anniversary will remind them of the magnitude of the disaster, the huge losses suffered by family, friends and acquaintances and the helplessness felt by many.

 

The FPA Australia head office is located, both in 2009 and now, not far from the site of some of the worst of the 400 blazes that took place on Black Saturday.

 

Many of our staff were personally affected by the fires - a number of them on the front lines as firefighters defending our community. Some of them have chosen to share their stories from that day with us here.

 

Their experience is part of what drives the Association in its work to protect Australians from the impact of fire.

 

 

Mark Johnstone
Systems Coordinator, Fire Protection Association Australia

 

Usually you hear about people being involved in tragic events, but you think "that will never happen to me or someone I know". I remember Black Saturday as not only a stifling hot day, but a day where I learnt that a colleague of mine tragically lost her life. It did not seem real then, and it still doesn't.

 
I had another friend who lived in St Andrews with his wife and two girls. They were lucky; they managed to get out with their lives. Their house, pets and property were completely destroyed. They no longer live in the area and the emotional trauma still haunts them. Black Saturday affected everyone.

 

 

Chris Wyborn
General Manager Education & Bushfire Services, Fire Protection Association Australia

 

Early that morning it was uncharacteristically hot, the wind blowing strongly and gusting, seemingly bereft of moisture. Raised dust, twigs and leaves were being pushed down the road with ease, the birds were quiet and there was a sense of foreboding.

 

I recall chatting with a fellow seasoned firefighter out the front of our fire station early in the morning of Black Saturday about what lay ahead. Reflecting on our combined 50 years of firefighting experience, and years of studying and teaching fire behaviour, we both knew that we were going to lose lives that day.

 

After spending all day at my fire station in Scoresby, responding to small fires in the local area and helping crews deploy to some of the larger fires in the Gippsland area, I was deployed just before 6pm to the Harkaway fire, and spent the night there.

 

The next day, as the devastation was still far from being known, I was asked to lead a strike team that deployed to the Yarra Glen area. Despite the main fire damage occurring the previous night, we came across street after street of stunned and dazed residents. We were the first emergency crews they had seen in more than 24 hours.

 

Many had not slept for two days, and they still couldn't. They were so traumatised by what they had experienced, they couldn't face sleeping, believing the fire that was still burning in the nearby hills was coming back. We tried to reassure them that they were safe and that we were here to help, despite knowing that we were under pressure to move to other areas and continue our reconnaissance looking for others in urgent need of assistance. I tasked a couple of the trucks under my control to patrol the area to provide reassurance to the residents and allow them some relief and hopefully much needed sleep.

 

Later that shift as dawn broke, we came across a small community about 10km from Kinglake. A majority of houses had been destroyed. One particular house stood out. There were three cars in the driveway and the keys were in the ignition of one of them. There was what was left of a hose and pump out the back of the house that led to a creek. I had a bit of a look around what was left of the actual house, the iron roof covering most of the ground. Everything about this house told me that all was not well. Careful not to disturb the scene, we marked the letterbox with scene tape for the police and left. To this day I don't know and don't want to know what actually happened at that house.

 

Sadly this was a story that many colleagues confronted over the next few days.

 

As a firefighter and with a career in community safety, there was a feeling of helplessness that comes from realising that despite your training and experience, there was very little that could have been done. Whilst the events of that day continue as a source of grief and difficulty for me, they do inspire me to work hard in doing what I can to develop better bushfire preparedness measures and educate and support the fire protection industry to hopefully mitigate the effects of the next bushfire disaster.

 

 

Andrew Thomas
Team Leader Training and Education, Fire Protection Association Australia

 

Being a volunteer firefighter for 22 years with CFA at that time, I knew it was going to be a bad day. Just how bad it turned out to be was not even imagined.

 

I was the allocated driver for the pumper truck, and we responded to a fire on Burwood Highway in Upper Ferntree Gully.

 

The wind at this stage was increasing and the thoughts were that if we didn't stop this, it would get into the Dandenongs, and then we are in real trouble. After several hours of active firefighting and great work by water bombing aircraft, we managed to pull the fire up and save the Dandenongs.

 

In all of my firefighting career, that day was the first and last time I have ever heard "Mayday Mayday Mayday" called out on the radio.

 

As per procedures, all other trucks ceased communications and let the radio traffic proceed. It was a truck full of fellow firefighters who were caught in the fire in the Kinglake area. Their truck was disabled and they couldn't go anywhere.

 

The one comment that stuck with me was from the person in charge, who commented "If you don't get someone here quickly to get us out, you are going to have a lot of paperwork to fill out".

 

This bought it home to many of us that we could be listening to the last words of other volunteers, who had stopped everything they were doing that day to help protect the lives and properties of fellow Victorians. Thankfully, that crew was ultimately able to escape and survived.


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