Black Saturday reflections ten years on

Speeding down the Calder Highway on a scorching Friday in February 2009, I wondered briefly whether this long-awaited weekend away was such a good idea. The brown fields on either side shimmered and the road ahead looked molten. The words ‘bushfire weather’ hovered in front of my eyes like the steam rising from the bitumen.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

I remember thinking that two of my most precious things were in that car.

My daughter and my laptop. Eliza was oblivious to all but the prospect of seeing her best friend. She and Molly were like Snow White and Rose Red: complete opposites in looks and temperament, but with a shared sense of humour and view of the world. They had met at four-year-old kinder, the year before Molly’s move to the country.

Little girl in mermaid dress ups looking at herself in a full-length mirror
One half of the dynamic duo: Eliza at age 4

In the ensuing ten years their friendship had remained rock solid, bolstered by regular weekends together in the country. Molly’s home at Woodend was a happy place for both of us.

The morning’s page 3 news story – ‘Extreme conditions to rival Ash Wednesday’ – hadn’t been enough to change my plans. My hostess and I had discussed the weather situation the night before. Berni and her family had been living in this beautiful part of the world for a decade now. She and her husband Stuart had thrown themselves into the local life, and were active participants at the regular bushfire awareness meetings in their district.

Unlike my family. We had lost a home in Fairhaven during the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. Back then, we had no fire plan other than to pack up and leave at the first sign of danger. 

Approaching their driveway, we could see Molly’s twelve-year-old brother Oliver on the roof, clearing the guttering and hosing it down in preparation for the following day.

With Molly’s father in Singapore on business, Berni was our fire warden for the weekend.

When we arrived, she was reading from a preparation checklist Stuart had sent from Singapore. It was two pages of instructions with headings like TonightTomorrowFire in region – possible threatFire threatening – embers attack, and the last heading, Fire front is coming/can see it/will arrive soon. I wasn’t crazy about that last entry. I couldn’t see Pack up and leave anywhere on her list.

But I had every confidence in my friend’s ability to read the conditions and act accordingly. I felt safe, knowing that Berni had a scanner tuned in to the local channel. What could possibly go wrong?

The following morning, Berni emerged bleary-eyed from her bedroom.

She had been listening to the scanner all night, and the reports coming in from places including Kinglake weren’t good. The news was worrying but not enough for us to deviate from our original plan to stay. Even the morning’s newspaper headline – ‘44° heat. As bad a day as you can imagine’ – wasn’t enough to change our minds. At that time, it was considered safest to stay with your house if you were prepared, and no one could have been more prepared than Berni. 

So we decided to shut out the heat and the world outside by cranking up the video player and closing the heavy-duty curtains. By focusing on our favourite movies, we hoped to keep spirits high and fear at bay. In truth, we had potentially deprived ourselves of the early indications it was time to evacuate, including the first signs of smoke. We turned our gaze inwards, within the four walls of our little fortress.

Perversely, I still think back on that long, stifling day with great fondness.

Over the marathon movie session that followed, Eliza and I were introduced to the delights of Molly’s family favourites. Music and Lyrics, a lesser-known Hugh Grant movie, both entertained and delighted us, not once but multiple times during the day. Often enough for us to learn by heart the highly choreographed dance moves and mirror them as they played out on the screen. I have vivid memories of the six of us lined up behind the couch, breaking into pairs where required, to emulate the film’s Wham-esque 80s boy band performing ‘Pop! Goes My Heart’. I’ve never had so much fun dancing around a lounge room.

Our weekend in Woodend could so easily have ended differently. I took my lead from the unwavering good humour and calm demeanour of my hostess. As we said our good nights, it took all my courage to say, ‘You will say when it’s time to leave, won’t you, Bern?’

She smiled. ‘Yes, I will.’ She gave no hint that my presence there was the only thing giving her the courage to stay. 

I spent another wakeful night but not, I now know, as wakeful as that of my friend.

The following morning, I rose before the rest of the household and walked the length of the sweeping driveway to the letter box. It was a beautiful, clear Sunday morning, and I took a moment to look about me and feel the joy of another day dawning. I was still ignorant of the headline splashed across the front page of the Sunday paper.

Sunrise over tree tops. Blue skies dotted with clouds
Country morning

Day of horror. More than 40 feared dead. Hundreds of homes destroyed.

The Age, February 8 2009

I sat straight-backed on the verandah and read the horrific accounts of survivors of what was being called Black Saturday. Berni appeared at the kitchen door, ashen-faced. There were no words.

The following morning, in a Melbourne café 70 kilometres away from our weekend retreat, I read the latest news of the fires. Under the headline ‘Our darkest day’, I learned the death toll had risen to 173. I managed to tap out a text to Berni. She responded immediately, finally sharing the extent of the stress she had been under and of the important role I had played – unknowingly – just by being there.

Ten years on, I look back on that weekend with incredulity.

It is hard to believe that I had absolved myself of responsibility for my own welfare and that of my daughter; that I had been any kind of support to the only true responsible adult present; and that somehow we had all come out of the experience unscathed.

That weekend, I saw the other side of country life; the stark reality of living with the threat of bushfire throughout summer. I’m grateful for the fact that I never had to find out what happens when Fire front is coming/can see it/will arrive soon, and that Woodend escaped the wrath of nature. I can only hope I would act differently. Next time.

Two women standing side by side smiling
Berni and me in 2018

This story first appeared in The Age on February 7 2019.

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