To hell and beyond

WE START just over the South Australian border and travel east towards Melbourne to find out what it was like and also what was learned in the Ash Wednesday bushfires, 30 years ago today. Until Black Saturday these were Australia's worst. More than 75 people died, 2500 homes razed, more than 50,000 cows and sheep were killed, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land scorched.

WE START just over the South Australian border and travel east towards Melbourne to find out what it was like and also what was learned in the Ash Wednesday bushfires, 30 years ago today. Until Black Saturday these were Australia's worst. More than 75 people died, 2500 homes razed, more than 50,000 cows and sheep were killed, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land scorched.

Melbourne was circled by fire on February 16, 1983; many of the fatalities were close to the city in Macedon, Cockatoo and the Dandenongs. There were 180 fires in Victoria.

We revisited those in south-eastern South Australia, the coastal flatlands around Warrnambool and also the Otways fire which swept down into north Lorne and raced east to Aireys Inlet.

At Kalangadoo, near Mount Gambier in South Australia, the town was saved but five people, including four young children, were killed. In all, 14 died in this corner of the state.

Bernie Rogers, now 83, was on his farm on Ash Wednesday. This is cattle and spud country, flat and scrubby with stands of big gums. Rogers' son Gavin, then 25, lived in his bright yellow van next to the farmhouse. He wore a beard and played guitar. Older son Luke was killed in a road accident five years earlier.

Bernie Rogers went out early and even then the weather looked "dangerous". By mid-morning the high winds had blown a sun shade off the back of his car and by lunch it was 42 degrees and perilous and a fire had started to the north.

The neighbours were Mary and John Williams and their four children, the oldest only seven. John Williams had left to check on his parents who lived nearby. Mary Williams had collected their kids from school. When the fire was looming Gavin Rogers decided to go and help them.

"Those kids were very dear to us," says his mother, Mary Rogers. One of them was her godson. By now trees at the Rogers' house were on fire. It had come on them so quick. The noise was so loud they could not hear each other speak. With the house about to burn the couple climbed out a window.

Mary Rogers sheltered in Gavin's van, wetting herself down with beer poured from longnecks broken open on the steering wheel and splashing it onto the van's burning bedclothes, set alight by embers flying in the skylight. "It was awful," she says. "Just awful."

Bernie Rogers left to find his son and neighbours. He found his son's car bogged in sand by the side of the road not far away. His son was dead between it and the Williams' car nearby. He didn't look into the Williams' car but instead took off in fright and fled back to the house.

All the sheds were on fire and now the main house, too. Breathing was difficult even through a wet handkerchief. The farm's ammunition was exploding. He found his wife in the yellow van and they drove into Kalangadoo.

"I wanted to find someone to do something about Gavin, who was still laying there on the road."

The road to town was through burning and falling trees. "We passed an empty firetruck," says Rogers. "The pump was still running but there was nobody there." They found the townsfolk on the school oval and with a policeman Rogers returned to where his son's body lay. Only then did he look into the Williams' car.

"And there were the skeletal remains of her (Mary Williams) and the four children all sitting up in their seats."

Rogers' uncle Martin was also killed.

Later, they hid their son's bright yellow van away out of sight then sold it.

Gavin Rogers was posthumously awarded two state bravery medals and the coroner's report into his death noted: "He no doubt forfeited his own life." Mary Rogers says she can still remember the feel of his beard on her cheek.

MELBOURNE was ringed by fire. It reached 43.2 degrees by 2.30 pm or so, the hottest February date since 1901. There had been four years of drought. The level of Eildon Weir had sunk 24 metres.

The great irony was the fires fell on this of all days - the first day of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday, which for Christians heralds a period of sacrifice. The church's ritual of marking a cross from ash on the foreheads of worshippers comes from the famous Biblical passage in Genesis about dust and ashes and how everything and everyone will eventually return to those things.

Of the 180 fires in Victoria, the worst were in the then-undeveloped Pakenham and Upper Beaconsfield in Melbourne's south-east, in the Dandenongs, and also Cockatoo, Powelltown, Reefton and Warburton.

Mount Macedon and East Trentham were devastated. The fires ripped through the Otways and down the Great Ocean Road from Anglesea to Lorne and also further west in Branxholme and around Warrnambool. South Australia too. Kalangadoo, Lucindale, the Adelaide Hills, the Clare Valley.

In Melbourne a week before, a giant dust storm created of drought-stricken topsoil from the north darkened the daylight and was an omen of dire portent; in Adelaide another dust storm came on the day itself.

Cows were particularly prone because the fires burnt like a rolling tunnel of fire a couple of metres high, across grass and scrub, fanned by extraordinary winds and far too quick to outrun. Teats and udders were burnt, making the animals if not dead then worthless. Hooves melted off, leaving exposed bone and flesh. Stressed or bloated cows aborted foetal calves in the chaos.

All across the south-west of Victoria and the nearby pocket of South Australia, deep 150-metre long pits were dug and burnt or shot stock buried in them, away from town water, like killing fields. In Kalangadoo, for one, they ran out of bullets.

ANDREW 'Pud' Auld, then 17, left his Kalangadoo home around 2.30 in the afternoon in a covered tractor to plough a firebreak. This was when the wind changed and he got caught. "It was all orange and fluoro and I knew I was inside the fire," he says.

He got down on the floor of the tractor and drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the throttle pedal. The inside of the cab started to burn and the fire and wind was picking up molten cow dung and throwing it around outside. The whole vehicle - a red International 484 - was rocking and almost tipping and a few times he thought he might choose to stop and die.

"Is this a f---ing nightmare or what," he says. That's what he remembers thinking. "Is this real?"

But he made it back to his family home, where everyone was still alive. They put the furniture outside on a lawn and all left Kalangadoo for South Australia's coast, where they stayed overnight. The next day when they returned all the furniture was burnt, by radiant heat.

Auld made it, somehow. Somehow. Being over the border he was unaware that at the same time as he was driving through fire in South Australia, villages and farms around Warrnambool across the border were also burning.

People were going through their own private hell. Nor did he know then that the iconic Great Ocean Road was about to go up.

"WE WERE the forgotten fire," says oldtime dairy farmer Brian Parsons, 71, of Nullawarre, between Warrnambool and Timboon near the coast. Nine people died around here - at Panmure, Garvoc and Cudgee. Eight came from three roads.

"We were burnt out," he says. "Very simple. Burnt out."

Parsons and wife Mary rebuilt after 18 months. He nearly lost his own life in the fire by herding a mob of cows ahead of the fire front to rescue them.

He took off at 12.30 pm when it got bad and his wife didn't see him until 8 pm, blackened and ashened.

He had been helping his neighbours.

She sheltered with others at the local store and then when that got too hot in irrigation lanes in paddocks. The fire here was like the one in Kalangadoo except higher: Parsons saw burning mini-cyclones - whirly-whirlies - almost four metres high.

Meanwhile at Naringal, not far away, school principal Ken Gale, then 34, was evacuating all 56 of his students.

He got 17 of them on the back of a ute, including his own children who were aged 10 and eight and loaded the rest into parents' cars. Plenty of the boys took their cricket bats with them, he says.

The school burnt down 45 minutes later. Only the iron gates remained.

For the Parsons family, the fire and the destruction was bad. But for proud country people with a long family history on the same land, the aftermath was worse.

They were left without anything much and had to rely on welfare (disaster relief money from charities and the government) and also handouts. People wanted to give them things - jumpers, boots, overalls - but they didn't want to take them because they didn't know how.

They were involved in the class action against the State Electricity Commission (SEC) in which $300 million was given to 5000 claimants who were able to prove that clashing power lines started the fire that ruined their lives. That felt rightful. Most of the other charity didn't.

"It's easier to give than receive, I didn't know the true meaning of that," Brian Parsons says. "This thing changed my life. I have more empathy now for those that have to rely on help."

NEXT, the Otways and the Great Ocean Road. There's a map at the Aireys Inlet Country Fire Authority shed that shows everything.

Just before 3 pm the fire starts up in the hills at Deans Marsh and runs south. Big spot fires at 5.20 pm then the wind changes from the south-west, sending the fire east - towards Fairhaven, Aireys Inlet and Anglesea, in a 20-kilometre wide front. By 7 pm it's at north Lorne, 8.30 pm at Aireys, 9 pm at Anglesea.

Three died and nearly 800 homes were razed. Brian Poynton, now 74, had lived at Aireys Inlet since the 1960s. He was one of the first pioneering surfers to ride Bells Beach when there was no road in or leg ropes on the boards. In 1983 he was working in Geelong. He rode home on his motorbike and by 6.15 pm knew he had to get his family out.

He and his ex-wife and their kids - a girl aged 15 and an 11-year-old son - drove to the beach and scrambled down a goat-track. Poynton went back to the house to see what he could save but it was too late. Flames were three metres high over the Great Ocean Road.

Back at the beach he took his family 50 metres into the water. It was low tide. "No swell at all," he says. "Like a millpond." All four were up to their necks with shirts over their heads to help them breathe, every so often squatting down to dampen them.

But it wasn't a calm scene. Embers flew around. The cliff at the beach formed a kind of vortex over which the flames would tumble. They couldn't see. The noise was constant. Power lines were down on the road. Dead kangaroos and parrots littered the sand.

Meanwhile, the Aireys Inlet CFA had trucks out. One got to Cathedral Rock and turned back and at Spout Creek, with the hills on fire and petrol in the vehicle vapourising, they stopped. Crew member Ross Girvan remembers lying on the floor of the truck, waiting for he didn't know what.

Paul Greene, then 23, was in a CFA four wheel drive evacuating people from up behind Eastern View. He says houses were exploding and roofing iron was flying 50-odd metres in the air. They headed back east towards Aireys Inlet and passed Lloyd Venables, the pub's barman who was out defiantly hosing his house, shirtless. He was killed.

Greene was in the vehicle with his mate Oggy, following only the white bumper of the truck in front, everything behind them on fire, houses exploding.

"At one stage," says Greene, "Oggy had four cigarettes on the go, two in each hand, he was that nervous. Couldn't see, just had to drive."

They made it to Anglesea, then Geelong. They came back the next day to an ashen, blackened surfer's paradise they had once known.

Now, he says, 30 years on, Aireys Inlet and the coastal resort towns along the Great Ocean Road are paradise again, but far more densely populated. The trees and bush are denser, too. Weekenders tend not to be as in tune with the environment as long-term residents, he says.

Despite all the massive changes in 30 years to weather forecasting, electricity infrastructure, home construction and firefighting communications and equipment, many are complacent, he says. "Some people here say 'oh, it's OK, in a fire they will help us.' But who is 'they?' The fireys? The police? The council?"

He says another odd attitude is towards fire plans. Too many people are scared to have them or admit they have them. He does. As soon as the weather conditions point towards fire danger, his wife and kids leave town and he stays, as he did before, to try and put the fires out.

The Poyntons emerged from the ocean four hours after they waded in. Their house was gone. Eventually, they rebuilt. Further up into the trees, with more fire risk, if fire ever again comes like it did. Most have no doubt it will.

He has galvanised pipe sprinklers all around the house and on the roof, he has fire pumps in a stone box and he has an underground survival bunker with chainsaw and axe ready.

His job these days, he says, is clearing leaves and vegetation and having a plan and watching the landscape around him closely, very closely, and being ready and even on edge for fire.

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