February 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Five years after Black Saturday

By John van Tiggelen

How we fight fires now

One Sunday last month, five members of the Country Fire Authority’s Hesket-Kerrie brigade, which guards the northern flanks of Mount Macedon, central Victoria, took their two tankers for a recce. Around them, the grass was tall and flammable, although the areas where it had been cut for hay showed up green enough to have the ratings pointer for roadside fire danger stuck on blue.

It would be on orange – “severe” – by the end of the week. One of the crew, Peter Gigante, took note of the forecast that morning with a shudder of déjà vu. The following days would see local temperatures reach 38, 41, 41, 43 and 42 consecutively. Not since the first week of February 2009 had south-eastern Australia faced a heatwave like this (note Hesket’s spot on the Great Dividing Range keeps it a degree or two cooler than Melbourne), and that week had culminated in Black Saturday, 7 February. One hundred and seventy-three people perished in what, in time, will become accepted as the day global warming showed its hand.

The two crews in the red trucks quickly left behind Hesket’s handful of houses and separated to familiarise themselves with the myriad dirt roads that trail the slopes of what locals call “the Mount”. The stringybarks grow thick and tall here. Scores of homes are hidden among the gullies and grafted on to hillsides.

“The place is still green, but, I tell you, it will burn,” says Gigante, as he turns into a rutted track that leads to the rear of a school, set among hundreds of hectares of forest. “Access and egress: that’s what concerns me. When there’s a fire, you’ve got to be able to head to it. You see these places, steep driveways, overgrown roads, a handful of houses at the end of a long winding track. These communities are tight; the people look after each other. But there’s just one way in and one way out.”

He indicates a guesthouse at the end of a 500-metre lane tunnelling through forest. On 7 February five years ago, it accommodated a party for 130 people. “You’d like to think they’d think twice about it now.”

Black Saturday was Victoria’s hottest day ever – the temperature peaked at 47 in Melbourne. But there were other factors that spun the fire-danger rating off the scale: blasting northerly winds, extremely low humidity and a preceding decade of drought. Gigante was on radio duty in the fire shed that day. The fire that went on to consume the town of Kinglake sparked east of the Mount, while smoke and ash from a massive blaze to the north turned the air a rusty orange. Mid-afternoon, a crew was dispatched to Kinglake. “By 5 pm they were up there,” recalls Gigante, “and it had already gone to shit.”

A one-time camp cook in the Kimberley, Gigante is now a Chinese medicine practitioner and, like so many here, a tree-changer. He moved to Hesket with his wife, Mary, in 2003, and joined the brigade three years later, conscious of the need to learn about fire as well as to build local links.

“We’re a pretty tolerant bunch,” he says of his brigade. But he’s aware of tensions in other branches. Too often, it’s left to the farmers living on the open plains to protect the city escapees ensconced in shady glens and atop scenic ridges. Gigante acknowledges that the influx of tree-changers like him has increased the risk of fire. “There are fewer farmers now, which means less hay is being baled and there is less stock to eat the grass.” And, of course, there are many more homes among the trees.

“I mean, this is a beautiful, beautiful area. Frederick McCubbin painted The Pioneer here. You can understand why people would live with this sort of level of risk. At the same time, local knowledge becomes really important. Small brigades like ours serve a critical purpose because you can’t just send in all the resources from outside without any familiarity.”

Gigante keeps two dogs and two horses on a large, semi-forested block that, as he is quick to point out, has excellent access and egress. Any fire would likely roar in from the north-west, past Hanging Rock. Staying to defend is not really an option, not least because he’d probably be on duty. “If a fire got past us, the Mount’s in danger.”

The Mount last went up during the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. Seven people died in the area, and some 500 homes, eight shops, four churches, a school and even the Macedon fire station were lost. But firefighting efforts are sharper now. The Mount’s pinprick communities are more vigilant. Water-bombing aircraft are quickly dispatched. Last summer, a discarded cigarette butt flared in long grass just a few kilometres from Hesket. The response was emphatic: 25 tankers from surrounding brigades attended, as did several planes and helicopters (including “Elvis”, the air crane), which kept the burn to less than 100 hectares.

We wind our way higher, along narrow Alton Road, which is lined with stately gateways to secluded heritage properties. Gigante comes to a hairpin bend where two driveways veer off at sharp angles into the scrub. He says it reminds him of the road to Kinglake. The night of Black Saturday, Gigante was leading one of the road-clearing crews. As men with chainsaws ripped through log after fallen log, Gigante and a colleague walked ahead, checking homes for survivors.

“We’d peel off into these long, steep driveways, trees all over them. At the first house, everything had burnt up to the house, the plastic tank was melted, pump and hoses all melted. We went looking in cupboards, in the shower cubicle, under the spa cover. Didn’t find anyone. Just trailed mud through the place, all over this white shag carpet. Outside, a verandah post was burning, so we put that out before walking down into the second place.

“It was deep in a gully. We found a Commodore burnt out, its engine block melted on the ground. An exploded gas cylinder was wrapped around a tree like a sheet. There was an old bath and chimney left of the house. Then I found this homemade fire shelter, dug into the slope on the downside of the house.”

Gigante pulls over to allow a car to descend the Mount.

“It had collapsed inwards and was full of coals, still glowing. I couldn’t get in. But there was this smell, very distinct, like someone was cooked in there.”

He continues slowly up Alton Road, peering over his wheel. “I heard next day it was a primary school teacher. A year later, after the memorial service at Kinglake West, I went for a drive to where we’d been the year before. At the top of the road I met the bloke who owned the first house. I apologised for messing up his carpet, and we talked about his neighbour, who loved nature. But the most upset I got, out of that whole day, was after I left him and saw another house being rebuilt, just down the road, even deeper down in the gully. It was a bad driveway to start with. And I was thinking, ‘How can they do that?’”

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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