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Black Saturday: The bush-fire disaster that shook Australia

BBC    

7 February, 2019 14:44 PM



Black Saturday: The bush-fire disaster that shook Australia

Black Saturday was Australia's deadliest bush-fire event

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Ten years ago, Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire disaster when 173 people died across the state of Victoria. Immediately branded "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history", Black Saturday has left a profound legacy. Sharon Verghis reports.

"It was like the gates of hell. There is no other way to describe it." 

For Tony Thomas, 7 February 2009 began as another ordinary day. It had been a summer of record-breaking temperatures, prompting days of safety warnings.

But Mr. Thomas wasn't overly concerned; they had had scorching days like this before.

The town of Kinglake and surrounding regions were devastated. Photo: Getty Images

In the lush, peaceful hills on the outskirts of tiny Marysville, about 90km (55 miles) north-east of Melbourne, he and wife Penni had carved out a fruitful life running a bed and breakfast on a 60-acre property.

His in-laws had arrived for a birthday lunch. It was a pleasant gathering, despite the suffocating heat. But in the late afternoon, they spotted smoke in the west. Going for a closer look, they saw the fire.

 

"It came out of the forest behind us on the other side - at 100k [kilometers] it just roared towards us," Mr. Thomas tells the BBC.

At 18.45, the fire hit - "and pretty hard". Mr. Thomas's family and the B&B guests ran for shelter in the house as he, his brother-in-law and an employee battled the fire. It was effectively three men with buckets and garden hoses against a roaring, wind-whipped blaze.

At 21.30, another wind change swung the fire towards the hay shed: "That threw flaming hay bombs at us for the next hour or so, massive embers and hay landing on us."

"When you've got 20 to 30 meter-trees burning and the flames are well above that, like a huge ball..." his voice trails off.

"Why people say gates of hell is because everything turned from light to dark very quickly - the sun got blocked out by the smoke.

"The only thing you could see is the glow of the fire through the smoke. We were choking. We only had large tea towels which we were wetting down constantly and wrapping around our faces so we could breathe."

Nearby, David Baetge was also fighting for survival on his property near the town of Buxton, directly adjacent to a large state park.


Armed with a comprehensive fire plan and previous firefighting experience, he had seen the smoke but chosen to stay. Like Mr. Thomas, the decision would almost cost him his life.

At about 1830, Mr. Baetge spotted fire on top of peaks about 3km (2 miles) away - with what he estimated to be 100m-high fireballs.

Even for a bushfire veteran, he was shocked at the speed of the fire as it raced towards him. "The sky was iridescent red with a deafening roar like standing next to a 747 jet," he would later recall in his blog.

Like Marysville, Kinglake had rows of buildings destroyed. Photo: Getty Images

 

"It was like being inside a cocoon of smoke with a maximum visibility range of about 30m and the whole of this hemisphere in every direction was glowing cherry red." He said it was "like being sandblasted - but with burning embers".

All through this once-bucolic landscape, others faced similar struggles.

Karen Curnow was among them. As her house caught fire, she fled in her car with her old dog, hurtling over and around burning trees, guilt-struck at having to leave her panicked horses behind.


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