Seared into our memories

Gazette journalist Rebecca Skilton recalls the horror of Black Saturday and the realisation that nowhere was safe for her family or animals. Picture: GARY SISSONS. 189556

Gazette journalist REBECCA SKILTON was just 14 years old when the fires of Black Saturday threatened her family home. 10 years on she recalls the horrific fire storm and the scars that still haunt her community today.

There’s no way to describe to someone the horror that was Black Saturday.

The closest I’ve ever gotten was ‘an apocalyptic nightmare’ or ‘hell on earth.’

I was 14 when the fires of Black Saturday ripped through the Bunyip State Park and devastated the farmlands of Tonimbuk, Labertouche and Drouin West. I lived with my parents in Garfield North, just a few kilometres from where the fire started days earlier on 4 February.

In hindsight, the fact ‘our fire’ was already burning prior to 7 February may have been a blessing. It gave us time to prepare as best we could; it saved lives and made us vigilant.

Little did we know that nothing could truly prepare us.

The Thursday prior to Black Saturday the CFA conducted a community meeting at the Tonimbuk Hall. They encouraged people to leave there and then – don’t wait until Saturday. They outlined where the pre-existing fire would travel, even giving us approximate times it would change direction and cross the highway at Longwarry. To this day I remain astonished at how precise their calculations were.

Everything they said would happen, happened – just faster than anyone ever thought possible.

But I remember looking at those CFA maps, then looking around the room. I was surrounded by neighbours, friends and family, and though it remained unsaid, we knew that some of us wouldn’t come out the other end.

When Saturday morning did come, it was eerily still. Bright blue skies promised a warm day ahead. I had a riding lesson at 8am.

But by 1pm the sky painted a very different story.

Embers rained down on our house while my dad positioned fire hoses. Wind howled uncontrollably. Smoke blocked out the stifling sun, and while the fire remained a few kilometres away, its heat was evident.

We weren’t alone throughout the day, accompanied by neighbours who didn’t want to stray too far from their own homes and friends from Labertouche who had packed their bags and evacuated to our house.

I can’t describe the guilt that hit me – and still haunts me – when they received the phone call that their homes had been burnt down.

If the wind had have been blowing in the opposite direction, it could have been us receiving that call.

To further add to my guilt, only a week prior, I had stood on their front lawn and said to my mother; ‘I wish we lived here. They are so much further from the state forest and so much safer from bushfires than we are.’

The seriousness of the situation hit us following that phone call. My mother evacuated my brother, myself and our animals (dogs, cats and horses). My brother and I were taken to a friend’s place in Bunyip. The horses were taken down the road to a Garfield North property under the powerlines – my mother certain that the CFA would do their best to save the powerlines if under threat.

But then the wind changed and suddenly even the ‘safe’ zones weren’t that safe.

We moved ourselves and the horses again. They have and will always be my number one priority; their safety as important as that of my family’s. But as fires burnt in every single direction around us, I came to the horrifying realisation that there was not one place we could take them that would guarantee their safety.

Because for as long as I live, I will never forget the image of driving down Hope Street towards the highway; towards the fire. It was the middle of the afternoon, yet the sky was red and black – the sky was on fire. You couldn’t see more than a few hundred metres in front of you. The hills were glowing bright red and the highway, being closed, was empty of all cars. No one was outside their homes, and having lost ABC radio signal hour beforehand, static was the only thing available on the radio.

Technology has come a long way in ten years. In 2009 we didn’t have a Victoria Emergency app sending us warnings and updates. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for older phones not to have internet at all.

We were in the dark, racing against a firestorm that had no mercy.

Which was why, after my mother dropped my brother and I – and the animals – off to another friend’s house on the flats in Garfield, she wasn’t aware that she wouldn’t be allowed back over the north side of the highway; back over to my dad who remained at our house, determined to stay and protect our home.

She had brought nothing but her wallet with her.

We didn’t get any sleep that night. We didn’t know our friend’s WIFI password to receive updates and at some stage through the night, my dad had fallen asleep, no longer answering our phone calls. In the distance, the hills remained alight, the only light in the smoke-filled sky.

The 2005 horror movie The Fog played on TV.

Each newsbreak revealed the climbing death toll.

Morning came with the news. Nearly two hundred people had died throughout Victoria and whole towns had been wiped off the earth. We had no idea which of our friends had survived and which hadn’t. We were allowed back home but our horror story didn’t stop there.

Because what many people living outside the affected zones often overlooked was that Black Saturday wasn’t just one day. Fires continued to burn and threaten homes for more than a month after 7 February. We were evacuated numerous times throughout February and many of our day-to-day activities, such as taking the school bus, were deemed too dangerous.

Our community was deemed lucky due to its zero fatalities.My family was one of the lucky ones, having come out physically unscathed.

But stress, anxiety and psychological torment remained a constant companion.

And even now, 10 years on, look close enough and you will still see its scars.

Dead trees still stand in paddocks and empty lots mark where homes once stood. Hot days strike fear into residents. Young adults purchasing land attempt to avoid properties within fire-prone areas. Those who once defiantly said they would stay to defend their homes admit that they would now be among the first to pack their bags.

As a community, state and country, we learnt a lot from Black Saturday and the turbulent months that followed. But the lessons we learnt were achieved in the most horrific of ways.

It was a day of loss, determination and survival. It was a day when most of us realised our utter insignificance and powerlessness in the face of Mother Nature.

It was a day when ordinary people did extraordinary things.

And while the scars of Black Saturday still run deep within our community, I am so proud of the people that call this area home. I am so proud to be Australian.

I am so thankful for the neighbours who left their own homes to help others. The friends who took in those who needed refuge. The incredible people who lost everything and still rebuilt.

The heroic firefighters, officials and volunteers who continuously put their lives on the line.

Who looked death in the face and survived.

It’s been ten years but we will never forget.

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