Black Saturday Bushfire
I was one of the few that took pictures while in the middle of the fire which were passed on to the CSIRO team that was investigating it so they can work out better ways to minimise damage and loss of life. I took the pictures because I was pretty sure we were going to die and I wanted some record of what we went through to be recorded. The plan was to seal the SD card in a water proof bag and place it at the bottom of the SPA which was filled with water. The house was made of stone so was likely to not completely destroy itself. Thankfully, that didn't happen.
The following was written on Feb 16 2009, the fire was on Feb 7.
Well, we were in the middle of it, literally from our POV.
We live in a road called long gully rd.
We are near the bottom of the valley about 2km up the road and one of the last few houses before the state forest. On either side of us are steep hills, 200m high or so and about 25Deg or more in some places to get to the top.
The road is a windy dirt track that snakes its way following a seasonal creek through the valley.
The temperature and wind were unprecedented on Saturday. Winds about 125kph (80mph) and temperature about 46degC where we are. This was on the tail end of a heatwave so the land was dry. To describe eucalyptus in heat above about 40DegC many refer to the oil that is released as a fine mist that only needs a flame nearby to ignite it. Needless to say, all it takes is a small flame anywhere near them to set off a bushfire. With winds like we were having that changes to a fire storm. Fire travelling about 120kph making its own weather patterns and wind as it goes. Outrunning it is impossible and as many found out also fatal if attempted. Running from it is all about luck. If it heads towards you, you're fucked. If it doesn't you'll be ok. IOW it makes no difference practically.
Many got caught on the road because trees explode and fall on the roads. The day after we traveled the road and the amount of trees on the road that needed a chain saw (a big one) to make a path were every couple of hundred metres. With 30km (for us) of road to get to safety of clear fields and town it was a death trap and not an option.
We could hear the fire. Couldn't see it. There was no smoke in the valley. The smoke we saw looked like it was 20km away.
Smoke starts coming into our valley.
The noise was loud. Loud enough to think we were at an airport and the sound of all the planes engines generating the white noise that is at an airport near a running plane is the best way to describe it.
The smoke filled the sky, the valley became darker, much like dusk but without the sunset. Very eerie.
We were still wetting down the house, roof etc preparing for the fire front should it come through our way. I say should because we had zero intel from anyone. Radio did not mention Flowerdale at all and we had no phone or internet coverage. No idea when/if the fire was coming our way.
About 7:00pm some people came screaming at the house next door yelling for us to get out, the fire was at their house, it was only 10km from us or so according to them. They fled.
Another guy came up beeping the car horn down the street to warn everyone of fire. We said we were staying to fight it, he said he was planning to stay too, till it hit his fence-line. Then he fled. I think I was his car on the side of the road between our place and Yea (town) the next day.
7:30 The sky took a deep red glow. Like the most magnificent sunset imaginable except it filled the sky. The glow got lighter and lighter but still maintained its redness over the next 15 minutes.
By 7:50pm the red sky was so bright that it was the brightest light source in the area. The sun was no longer even a factor. The whole valley was seen as if through a red filter.
The first flame was spotted. Looking at the silhouette of the tall gum trees on the ridge line it slowly rose above them till it dwarfed trees. I knew then this was no ordinary fire. The flame was so big and far away that it moved slowly, like the finest silk orange/yellow handkerchief in the gentlest breeze. The deception of distance is what made it move so slow in the background. It must have been hundreds of metres further than the trees on the ridge line. Possibly on the next hill, which would make it more like a kilometre away.
8:30pm The first flames hit our valley. The trees on the ridge lit up like tissue paper in an open fire. No slow burn, just an big whoosh and it was fully going.
It crept down the southern side of the valley wall when Lorianne noticed it was starting up on the northern ridge as well. Within minutes it was coming down both sides towards us. Then we noticed the state Forrest side of the valley towards the East, it was lit up, glowing red and headed our way.
So we were covered from three sides now and Lorianne looks behind us, towards the exit of our road Westward, it too was lit up and glowing red.
Fuck, we knew we were surrounded, literally by walls of flame coming towards us. What we didn't know at that time was that this probably saved the houses around us and made our life easier.
It was now burning 100m from our home on all sides. The sound changed. It was no longer white noise. Now we could identify the various noise sources. The exploding gum trees, the gas tank relief valves (the town has no gas supply, everyone has a gas tank LPG), the gas tanks exploding because the relief valve could no longer contain the pressure. You can always tell its about to happen because the frequency and duration of the relief valve operation got faster and longer respectively. Each burst our sounded like an F18 engine shooting by. Then the explosion as the tank finally gave way.
One could have been mistaken into thinking we were in a war zone.
Houses collapsing, trees falling. All unique sounds that most of us wouldn't even think about in our entire lives were continuously happening around us.
We had to retreat to the house. The heat was getting too much and sitting in the car was risky. That's when the tractor pictures were taken with the fire in the background.
Fire front had passed.
We stepped outside and started putting out spot fires.
The smoke was intense.
Our noses would not stop running. Our eyes were burning. For relief we would retreat to the car and turn on the AC. The condensed water on the element acted as a filter for the smoke and on re-circulation mode we could breathe what felt like fresh air at the time. As we found out the next day after a shower at our friends place, that the car stank, heavily of smoke even after driving 100km with the windows down. Enough to make me want to puke when we got back into it but at that time during the fire, it seemed like clean fresh air.
For the next few hours we would put out fires and retreat to the car. The ash and smoke were so intense I got alkaline burns around my eyes from soaking them with water to relieve the burning and the pain during the night.
By the end of the night every time we saw the neighbours house about to go up again it was, "fuck, FUCK!!!" in an angry tired not this shit again mode rather than one of urgency. The pain of breathing and eyes burning was enough at one point for me to think, "fuck it, let the thing burn" but we didn't. We stepped out yet again into the smoke struggling to breathe and put the fire out. Then retreat back into the car and throw wet towels over our heads and eyes to quell that now familiar burn.
It became our cycle through the night.
Our neighbour James and us going around and putting out fires and checking places it might start again.
About midnight, the house owned by a Japanese lady across the road from us caught fire. A beautiful mud brick home with all her traditional Japanese water paintings gone up in smoke. We could have saved it if our hoses would reach. But as it was all we could do was watch it burn.
We took shifts sleeping. Lorianne and myself on one shift, James on the other.
That night five people on our street died in their homes. Four because their car wouldn't start. Oddly, their car remained in the driveway untouched while their house and them were burned.
The other died in his house right next door to them, no one knows his story.
Long Gully Road in Flowerdale had 27 houses survive the fire that night. Most due to the people that stayed back to fight it out. Those that left pretty much lost their homes except for a few where the neighbours helped save them.
Over 50% of the houses survived.
The Thursday after the fire at about 5am, another was lost. Total of 26 made it through, about 20 didn't.
So there ya go. My account of what happened on our road. I'm sure others would have similar stories of what happened to them.