Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Community and Inferno- a survivor's tale

By Richard Tonkin
Created 23/02/2009 - 14:42

On inquiring after some friends in the Maryvsille area, I received the letter below, which is published on Webdiary with the author's permission:

To begin at the beginning, on Saturday 7^th February Claire was bushwalking in the Otways which was cooler and pleasant, Murray was staying with a friend in Narbethong and Diane & David were at home. The weather forecast was for 46^o C & strong north easterly winds and later in the afternoon a southerly change and cool change. In preparation for the conditions Diane cleared our gutters and raked around the house and David filled and checked our standby generator.

After that we closed the house and took it easy on what was going to be  a very hot day. Just after 3:00pm Diane received a S.E.S. pager call to  assist in removing a tree that had fallen on the Maroondah Highway near  Buxton, caused by the very strong winds. While she was on this call they  observed a plume of smoke over the Black Range to our North East. As  they proceeded to remove the tree the plume of smoke increased and  darkened and by the completion of their work it was clear that this fire  was moving rapidly to the south along the black range (30km? away).

Meanwhile, back at our house David receive a phone call from Murray at  Narbethong asking if he knew anything about the heavy smoke in the air.  David said he would look up the CFA web site and phone back. The phone rang again; it was Jodie Murphy phoning from Buxton asking David if he  knew anything about heavy smoke in Buxton. At this stage the skies were still blue and clear over our house. On the CFA website there was information about a fire at Murrindindi mill but no nearer fires.

At this stage Diane returned home from her S.E.S. call and informed David of the fire she had seen on the Black Range and it was decided that David should go and collect Murray immediately and Jodie and her 1.5 year old twins should be asked to join us as her partner Leon was away with work and her father Proinnsias and Mary were in Melbourne. While David was away Diane busied herself filling all available containers with water and clearing the area around the house.

While travelling over Mt Gordon to Narbethong David observed a line of flames extending km’s along the Black Range and moving very quickly. David picked up Murray and advised the people he was staying with to leave as they are surrounded on all sides by thick forest. After
leaving, within a kilometer, David & Murray noticed that a grass fire extending 200-300m had started on the ridge line 500m to their right between Narbethong and Marysville. David and Murray returned to their friends’ house and advised them and their neighbours to leave  immediately. Driving along David tried to phone 000 but the line was too  busy and rang out continuously. Driving through Narbethong they tried to  alert the CFA but they had departed already (to fight the Murrindindi fire?) on reaching Marysville they detoured by the CFA shed and informed them and they said they would investigate.

On arriving home the family, with the help of Murray’s friends from Narbethong, busied themselves with fire preparations (e.g. blocking and filling gutters) hosing down, starting the generator when the power failed, etc, etc. While this was occurring Lynne Stone, Gayle Walters
and other friends from Marysville drove in saying they were evacuating from Marysville to Alexandra. At this stage we received a call from an S.E.S. member that an accident had happened, a tree had crushed a vehicle in Marysville and someone was entrapped. David was on call as the local ambulance officer and felt obliged to respond. After a short discussion with Diane we both realized our roles in the S.E.S and Ambulance put saving lives above higher priority than fire plan. David left Diane & Murray to make their choice of implementing the fire plan or to leave but both feeling comfortable with option of leaving. While David was away Diane & Murray decided to take refuge with our people in our valley at a neighbour’s farm and return after the fire front had passed. Murray diligently collected all of our musical instrument and computers and put them in the van while Diane packed clothes and important photographs.

In Marysville the sky was black with rolling clouds of smoke, high winds and embers. The patient was suffering minor injuries but took considerable time to be extricated from the car. Four ambulance officers were in attendance and it was decided that the two officers resident in the township would transport the patient to rendezvous with an Alexandra ambulance so that the Marysville ambulance would be available for any further calls.

When leaving Marysville David observed a wall of flame twice the height of the trees (60-80m tall) come rapidly over Mt Strickland and descend at very high speed into Marysville.

On returning to our house David found that Diane & Murray had departed but a fire trailer had been deposited in the driveway. Judging he had a little time to spare David started the fire pump and proceeded to hose down around the house. At this time Diane returned with a neighbour to retrieve the fire pump and explained they had retreated with other neighbours to a farm 1km further down the valley surrounded by well irrigated paddocks. The plan was to wait there until the fire front had passed then if possible to return to our house and fight any ember attack.

In less than five minutes Diane’s S.E.S. colleagues drove in. They had just come down the valley from Marysville and informed us, in the strongest terms, not to stay but to leave while it was still safe. The sky was black and the deafening roar of the fire could be heard although
no flames were visible, Diane, David, Murray and Jodie decided to evacuate to Alexandra. Throughout the journey we were engulfed with smoke but saw little of the fire.

Alexandra was organized chaos with the high school and basketball courts acting as emergency refuge centers. Countless volunteers tried their best to assist with no power, high temperatures, wind, smoke and very limited information. Little did we know a lot of Victoria was in a similar condition and that the authorities information was way behind the conditions on the ground.

Thankfully our lovely friends in Alexandra who were away for the weekend offered us the use of there house (a thousand thankyous Ron & Penny). Diane, David, Murray, Lynne, Jodie and the twins went to their house. David also had the Marysville ambulance which had been taken to
Alexandra by other crew members and was still on call to assist. After an hour or so David was called to attend some other incidents occurring in Alexandra Township.

In his absence everyone else had been listening to the news that the Alexandra was going to be under further ember attack. With the poor air quality and fire risks it was decide this was not a safe place (particularly for the twins) so we called other friends (lovely Kristen & Max) at Tatong, near Benalla, a further 100kms away who said we were most welcome at their place. Unaware of this David had made arrangements for other Marysville ambulance officers to man the vehicle at the refuge centres where they were staying.

At 1:30am on Sunday a very weary convoy of travelers arrived at Kristen & Maxs’. After bedding down the twins we were fed, watered and tucked into bed and collapsed till morning (another 1000 thanks). The morning sun was an eerie red through the thick smoke at Tatong. Via phone calls and the radio the enormity of the disaster and the loss of life of our friends in Marysville was beginning to become evident.

Proinnsias and Mary were still in Melbourne and Jodie’s partner was en route by plane from Qld, when Mary’s brother, offered the use of a holiday house in Mt Martha that could accommodate us all (thank you John & family). The Hume highway had been re-opened by then so we headed off to Melbourne for a re-union and for Lynne to leave us and to be with her

On Sunday afternoon, amidst many hugs and tears, Jodie was re-united with her family and we were united with our daughter Claire & close friends, Proinnsias & Mary. We had once again moved into luxurious refugee accommodation (another 1000 thanks John & family). With many
mobile phones and a land line the thoughts of concerned family and friends and offers of help began to inundate us. The love and concern shown by all of you was overwhelming and humbling (everyone take a 1000 thanks).

At this stage everyone thought they had lost their houses and possessions, as had many of our friends in Marysville. None of us felt particularly sad about this loss, the gift of still being alive when so many were dead or injured made such things seem paltry in comparison.

As Monday progressed more information came through from Marysville that Diane & David’s, Jodie & Leon’s houses had survived more or less intact but that Lynne, Proinnsias and Mary like many others would have no home to go back to.

Jody, Leon and the twins and Diane, David, Claire and Murray got the all clear to go home on Monday afternoon. Sadly by the time we reached Healesville further fire outbreaks had closed the Maroondah Highway so we had to turn around and head back to Mt. Martha.

Later that week our family moved down to another friend’s holiday house at Sorrento (thanks Cathy & her family) to be with other close friends who were trapped in Marysville and spent the Saturday night on the footy oval. The experiences they had been through made ours seem trivial in comparison.

Over the following days contact was made with many of our Marysville friends. We shared our stories and grieved for those injured or who had lost their lives, those orphaned and those who lost their children.

By this stage the scale of the devastation had become known to the world. We were unable to return home as the area was closed firstly as a crime scene and secondly to make it safe for people to return (and the fire is still going although many km’s away).

On Sunday afternoon we finally drove home through 70-80km of devastation. It is a bare and black vision of destroyed houses, burnt road signs, fallen trees and dazed people standing, trying to work out where to begin rebuilding their lives.

As we came nearer to home we saw a strange new landscape mixing the familiar with the totally new. Houses are gone, there are new views through once dense forest, all the surrounding hills are brown instead of green, smoke hangs in the air and very few songbirds are singing.

As we drove up our driveway to the left the neighbour’s house & sheds (which he stayed and valiantly defended) has gone. Instead there is a charred and collapsed mess.

Our front paddock is unburnt, but the back paddock is charred, trees are down, fence posts burnt to below ground level. The fire has come to the back of the sheds, the heat has curled the iron sheets off the wall. There is ash in between the flyscreens and window glass. There are burnt leaves lying in the bushes near the dining room. The reeds in the dam are burnt to water level. Along the road the trees and road reserve are burnt. And………. our house and sheds are as we left them!

We are constantly talking to the people who stayed put and to those who are returning. Every person you meet has to be hugged and touched just to make sure they are really still here. We are all overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit being showered on our communities. Local halls are filled with donated food, clothes and household supplies.

The towns may have been destroyed but the communities are still very strong and surviving thanks to the help of you, our much larger community.

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