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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Last Hope in Hell

Bushfire bunkers

By Michaela McGuire 
November 2012November 2012Medium length read
 

In front of a factory in Melbourne’s far east, two ventilation fans at ground level turn slowly in the cool spring air. Below them is buried a bunker. Once its heavy-gauge stainless-steel door shuts, the only sources of light are the LEDs fixed to the ceiling. Not that there’s much to look at. There aren’t any cans of chickpeas, or bottles of water, or first-aid kits. It’s not the sort of bunker you’re supposed to stay in for long.

“Six people for one hour,” says Anthony Tratt, director of the only government-accredited manufacturer of bushfire bunkers in Australia. “A lot of people will say, ‘So that’s three people for two hours then.’ But that’s not what they were tested for. It’s six people for one hour.”

When it comes to Australian bushfire authorities’ ‘stay or go’ policy, Tratt is a strong advocate for the latter choice. “A bunker’s somewhere to go when you’ve got nowhere to go,” he says. Explaining that a fire front lasts around 15 minutes, he shows off a bunker door subjected to the government testing process. “It was blasted with flames at 1168 degrees [Celsius] for two hours. That’s worse than the worst fire you can imagine.” Yet the door looks in better condition than the average stovetop.

Asked for the contact details of some of his clients, he warns that many are fiercely private, and may not want people knowing they have bunkers. Why not? Tratt shrugs. “If there is a fire, I guess they won’t want 20 neighbours banging on their bunker doors.”

Among the less shy are Patrick Wolfe from Chum Creek, in the hills east of Melbourne. Wolfe was undergoing surgery in a city hospital on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. “I was discharged in the afternoon and was having dinner at my favourite Italian place on Lygon Street,” he says. “That’s when my daughter called to tell me that my house was gone.” He’s presently renting a neighbour’s house while waiting for his home to be rebuilt. Wolfe points 15 metres downhill at a belt of trees, half of which remain charred black. “That’s where the wind turned. My landlady lives back in the city now.”

There’s still not much to the block where Wolfe’s house once stood, other than Tratt’s bunker, set deeply in a hillside. The installation was done by another neighbour, an excavator by trade, who dug the hole with the same bobcat he used to push back burning trees from his own property on Black Saturday. “He spent 72 hours saving his house,” says Wolfe, “and the one further up the hill, owned by the millionaire weekender.”

So does Wolfe plan to stay or go in case of bushfire? “I know what Anthony [Tratt] would want me to say,” he says, with a wry smile. “And, look, if a fire is coming down the hill from Toolangi, and there’s one coming up the hill from Warburton, then I’m out of here. I’m not going to leave every day that there’s an extreme [fire danger] rating. I chose to live out here.”

To the west, on Melbourne’s outer fringe, Ian and Ann Penrose have been reviewing their fire plan ahead of the coming fire season, which is expected to be severe following two relatively wet, lush summers. They moved into their stone house, at the end of a one-way road in North Warrandyte, eight years ago. Ian, who holds the position of Yarra Riverkeeper, and Ann, a keen gardener involved with Landcare Australia, are quick to say they don’t value their lifestyle over their lives. “We knew when we moved out here that we were moving into a heavily bushfire-prone area,” says Ian. “It’s actually called a ‘wildfire area’,” Ann adds. “We did a CFA course within weeks of moving here because we felt so at risk.” Their lines of defence include a full swimming pool, a separate water tank and an independent supply of pumps, as well as their bunker.

The Penroses plan to stay and defend on all but ‘Code Red’ days. “Of course, you could have a fire without the rating, and you can have the rating without a fire,” says Ian. “We’ll leave on Code Red days, but if you had smoke or fire here, the last place you’d want to be is on that road.” Ann nods. “We’re at the end of a dead-end street so if a tree falls over the road we’re not going anywhere. You can’t get over the bridge into town on a Monday morning, let alone in a bushfire.”

So far there are at least six other bushfire bunkers nearby, and neighbours have regularly come around to have a look at the Penroses’ before deciding whether to buy their own. The couple have never considered keeping their bunker secret.

“I can’t see that it’s a huge risk we’ll have to worry about: people coming to squeeze into our bunker,” says Ian, joking that they’ll just put up a ‘Members only’ sign. “I think the benefit of others knowing we’ve got the bunker – [that] they do the same, and think about their fire plan – is a better win than keeping it secret. In fact, it was a neighbour who showed us his bunker.”

Across Victoria, many hundreds of bunkers have been installed since Black Saturday, of wildly varying degrees of quality and safety. Around 200 of these are Tratt’s. “They are not an incentive to stay,” he emphasises. “They are a backup in case people get trapped.”

The home of another of Tratt’s clients, Mez Woodward, overlooks a valley in Faraday, near Castlemaine, one of Victoria’s 52 towns listed as high risk. She had her bunker installed three years ago, at the top of a hill. A friend of her daughter’s recently shot a music video clip in the bunker, which is as much use as Woodward hopes it will ever see. “There’s good acoustics in there,” she says.

About the author Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire