Blackest Saturday

They call it Black Saturday but that is not particularly accurate. I call it Inferno Saturday because it was the day that the gates of Hell opened and in one blazing breath, a great spinning fire burst upon us, consuming everything in its way.

It was only as the horror of it unfolded in the following days, that people, mute with shock, struggling with that knowledge, attempted to find words to deal with the unspeakable.

There had been bush fires before. Ash Wednesday of 1983, stood out eerily in most recent memory: the aptly named first day of Lent was the very day of the catastrophe, which left huge welts of cinder on the outskirts of Melbourne and in the Adelaide Hills.

Then there was the Black Saturday of the 1930s, when big fires did big damage, taking a big toll on life and land. The old could remember this dimly, but it was in another time and in another world. Today it was a different planet, sporting bullet-proof jackets, anti-terrorist strategies, extreme safety consciousness enshrined in tomes of laws, tricked-up emergency services and more ingenious technology than any science fiction writer of the past could have imagined.

Large-scale incineration and mass carnage are just not what anyone could have expected because we had so many fire management and safety strategies in place. We knew what to do and how to do it. We were ready.

It had been a very hot summer: days over 40, total fire bans, the long, long drought that had reduced vegetation to tinder and the earth to dust.

Despite these extreme conditions, daily life went on, working its way around them. Months before, I had contracted house painters to do the gables and fascias on our house and it was late January by the time they got around to it.

How could they work in such blistering conditions, I asked, serving cold drinks to the father and son team.

We follow the shade,” explained the father, who was tanned and had swirling biker tattoos, providing perhaps 40% cover to his arms. The son was pinky-fair, a textbook perfect potential skin cancer case.

The Anti-cancer Council had done its work well and many of us had to take vitamin D tablets because, thanks to the constant wearing of sun hats and sunblock, we were severely deficient of the vitamin dispensed free by the sun in one of the sunniest lands on the globe. At about the time that I contracted the painters, I had been diagnosed with an alarming D-deficiency and was put on a massive daily dose. By rights, my bones should have been as brittle as the drought-parched bush litter. So, we really did need the sun, though it did not feel good for you in the highly magnified circumstances we were experiencing.

Hard to believe in all that heat, but the temperatures were set to really rise towards the end of the last week of January and mid-40s were predicted. As luck would have it, the painters had to interrupt my job to go to Puckapunyal, where they were to paint a new auditorium at the army barracks. It was air-conditioned, indoor work and they would stay three days.

The Thursday and Friday boiled. The garden singed. It was as if a giant magnifying glass had been put between the foliage and the sun. Shrubs over a meter high shrivelled. Leaves that had been green at dawn were burnt to brown. The west side of the radiata pine in our front yard turned a mellow, autumnal red, only it wasn’t autumn and this was an evergreen tree. Because of the painting, I had moved the pot plants on the back deck away from the house and into the shade of a big native tree growing by the fence. I hadn’t thought to put the sun-loving plants right into the shade. By the evening of that first day, they were burnt crisp, like herbs dried in an oven but left too long at too high a temperature. The parsley was unrecognisable.

The Saturday was predicted to boil as well. As I had enrolled in a Tai Chi course that was commencing that day in Hoppers Crossing, on the western outskirts of the city, I had no choice but to go. Although it was a good distance in kilometres from my home, the trip was an easy 40-minute drive over the Westgate Bridge and down the sprawling freeway. The sky was overcast and kept the lid on the heat. After class, I dropped in at a friend’s, nearby. She had the air-conditioner frostily whirring away and told me that her grandparents, who lived locally, had spent the last two nights in her lounge because their house was too hot.

Sitting there in the cool, we chatted about the heat. We talked about the recent spate of bush fires and while we knew there would be more before the summer was over, surely the worst of the heat was behind us. My friend said that if I cut the dead parsley back, maybe it would return.

It was the middle of the day as I drove home along Marine Parade. It was only 39 degrees and the sun was blanketed by cloud. At the St Kilda beach traffic lights, two teenage boys crossed the road. They had bare feet and carried their expensive thongs. The ground must have been very hot but they weren’t even hopping.

Over the following days, the temperatures subsided, the painters returned and life went on again. When skyrocketing temperatures were predicted for the coming weekend, I prepared for it. Old shade cloth was draped over the pot plants and smaller shrubs. Multiple thicknesses went over the fishpond. Gold fish need more food in warm weather than in cold and this summer they were fed daily.

A temperature of 46 degrees was predicted for Saturday, the seventh of February. Having survived the previous week’s heat wave, I again set off for my Tai Chi class. This time, there was no cloud cover and at 9 am, the pale sky shimmered with early heat. The roads were quiet and only a few people took their exercise along the foreshore, usually a scene of pumping action: joggers, bike riders and walkers, with and without dogs, all powering along, oblivious to their backdrop of sand, sea and sky.

On arrival at the community centre where the class was held, I soaked a bath towel in cold water and draped it inside the car by securing it with a window. Leaving the window opposite slightly open for airflow, made a primitive air-cooling system. I did not want to return to a molten vehicle. Later, it was only when I removed the concertina sunshield from the dashboard and felt the heat radiating from the windshield that I knew the wet towel had worked.

It wasn’t yet 11 am and the temperature was already over 40. The air pulsated. There was no one on foot in the streets and the traffic was thin. As I drove along the freeway, the sun bored through the windscreen, which was now too hot to touch. I pulled the still-wet towel across my chest and shoulders. This was heat so thick, you could see it settling its massive weight over the land and pushing the blue of the sky further and further up.

The bayside was deserted. I had never seen this before in my decades of life by the sea and it made me more anxious to get out of the heat and take shelter.

The house was dark and still with all the curtains and doors shut against the heat. The dog stretched out on the floorboards under the dining table, which had become his personal verandah over the hot summer.

As the elderly are said to be most severely affected by the heat, I phoned to check on my oldest tenant, Bill, who is in his eighties and lives in one of our weatherboards in Belgrave, an old township in the Dandenong Ranges. After a life of moving around the country, he had returned to this holiday destination of his youth, which although still a tourist destination, is now considered a part of suburban Melbourne.

He was cool, having recently bought an air-conditioner from Bunnings. He’d been up the street early and was not worried about the heat. I listened to his confident prattle.

What’s wrong with you?” he asked, “You’re not your usual bright self.”

I just mentioned the heat.

Bill was very dismissive. He had lived through the Great Depression, gone without food and footwear, survived industrial accidents and cancer. Clearly he was not set to cark it, despite the conditions.

That was one less worry but not enough to dampen my anxiety, fuelled by the creeping heat. I spent the afternoon in the dining room, reading. It was getting hotter and hotter. The darkness unsettled me. I went to the back door to check how the world of light was going. Radiant heat passed straight through the glass. I opened the door onto a solid wall of heat. It hummed and throbbed with its own intensity. The sky was milky white. The shade cloths were just palls. From the doorway, I cast my eyes around for the cats, neither of which was inside the house. If a fire broke out now, half of Melbourne would burn. That’s how it felt in the 50-degree heat.

The previous summer, I had walked on melting asphalt in Parkes, NSW and my first reaction was, “Yuck, I’ve just stood in chewing gum!” The real explanation was on the sign at the entrance to the public library, asking you to wipe the tar off your shoes before entering. Parkes was hot but this was so much hotter that it didn’t even occur to me to go out the front and check how the roadway was holding up.

By 5 pm the sun could cause no further harm, so I opened all the curtains. The dog still wanted his dinner and the cats reappeared, cool, unfazed. The worst was over, I believed, although it was still very hot. Later, we took the dog for a walk to the foreshore on the rocks, where there is no summertime prohibition against anyone or anything. It was nowhere near as hot as it had been earlier and the air was moving a bit. There were other people about.

Then we got fish and chips, as usual, and watched something on TV that we had recorded earlier in the week but hadn’t had time to watch.

We had no idea that a fire – bigger, faster and hotter than anything ever seen in the country’s recorded history – was at this very time incinerating whole settlements just outside the city. Houses exploded, cars melted.

Many died: in houses, in cars, in open paddocks. The count of charred, scattered bodies, some never to be identified, just grew and grew. The same sad story, retold over and over, counterpointed by the silence of the countless dead animals and a razed black landscape. In the days that followed, we could hear them calling to us.

The survivors told their own stories of a fire alive with its all-consuming intensity: sometimes devouring everything in its path, sometimes leaving a house or a shed standing as if it was picking over a tasty dish of which it had had too much, and sometimes, having passed through, turning back to swallow a whole house that it had missed in its first, frenzied visitation.

Day after day, I kept reading and rereading Byron’s The Darkness, which contained the information that newspapers could never reveal.

It seems everybody knew somebody who was directly affected. My martial arts teacher’s brother-in-law lost his house at Chum Creek. A neighbour, who had strong connections out Marysville way, spent much time working at an emergency centre in that vicinity. My sister had only recently lived and worked in Kinglake West. Her former street, Coombes Rd perished and most of the neighbours were dead. A girl she had worked with, died, along with her sister, trying to save their horses.

The friend, who advised me to cut back the dead parsley, told me how her immediate boss was sacked by the big boss from Western Australia, for being “a heartless shit.” It turns out that some of my friend’s co-workers wanted time off to go help with bushfire relief but their superior flatly refused. When the big boss came to Melbourne, partly to see a close friend who had just been burned out, he wasn’t too happy to learn about this.

The butcher, who supplies the tastiest portion of our dog’s dinner, told me he wasn’t affected because, although his sister lived in one of the bushfire areas, she escaped untouched.

The summer raged on, though not as hotly as on that infernal Saturday. There were more fires, some closer to home: in Upper Ferntree Gully, Belgrave and Ferny Creek. We received SMSs from the police, warning us not to go to the Dandenongs on certain days. If those heavily populated hills had caught fire, the death toll would be in the thousands. This time, we were spared.

After the cinders settled, came the bleak tedium of cleaning up the mess. This included the official Royal Commission into the whole situation, from the thermal science behind it to the human management of the carnage. One man told his story of how no rescue officials would help him cover charred bodies because “it wasn’t their job.” There were people convicted of stealing donation tins collecting money for the fire victims and there were even problems with administering the massive sums raised for bushfire relief. Suspicions of arson had to be addressed and added enormity to the ramifications of the devastation.

Lately, I have seen real estate ads for blocks of land in Marysville. “Privacy and Location,” they exclaim, under photos of freshly levelled blocks, edged by blackened trunks. Having been totally destroyed, the place would be very private. The hopeful conclusion states, “The ideal time to purchase any real estate in Marysville and help establish the town to its former glory.”

But from the safety of Melbourne’s cold winter drizzle, I think of next summer with dread. My fear sits inside me like a large bird, trapped in a cage so small, it can only sit quietly, its wings folded, hopeless.

Of all my dead plants, only the parsley returned.

Blazenka Brysha, June 2009


Twelve months on from the devastation of Black Saturday, the stories behind the statistics are still filtering through. In Vale Reg, Blue Mountains writer, Larry Buttrose remembers actor Reg Evans for his sagacity, wit and helpfulness to others.

Also published in Group Mag2