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Surviving Australia's most extreme bushfire

April 10, 2018

The driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia has lived with bushfires for millennia. But the 2009 Black Saturday infernos were so fierce that survivors are still grappling with the consequences.

Australien | Black Saturday Buschfeuer 2009 in Victoria
Image: Getty Images/S. Henderson

Ash carried by heavy winds had started to fall from the sky when a neighbor sent me a text message to warn us that a fire might be descending over the valley.

As my partner and I got into the car to leave, we couldn't see smoke in the immediate vicinity — but the ash was a clear sign that things were bad in the distance. Ten minutes later, we sought safety by a river and waited for the fire to engulf the mountain — and ultimately, our house.

Living mostly in the city, we had retreated to our cabin in the thickly forested mountains outside Melbourne to escape the peak of a brutal heatwave. Urban temperatures had been expected to spike at 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest day on record, and had regularly been in the mid-40s the week before. Scientists says climate change is driving record-breaking heat waves and "bushfire weather."

The official "extreme fire danger" warning in place that day had already become commonplace. But due to the 100 kilometer-per-hour winds and a prolonged drought that had turned the region's vast forests into a tinderbox, the Premier of Victoria warned that February 7 could potentially be the "worst day in the history of the state." Many, including myself, did not get the message.

Read more: Can Australia's wicked heat wave convince climate change deniers?

In the end, it seems a change of wind saved our valley. As we continued to watch helplessly from the sanctuary of a pub by the river where some locals had gathered waiting for the fire to arrive, towns to the northeast were burning instead. Many residents were ill-prepared. Many would not make it out alive.

A fire-fighting helicopter, shrouded in smoke, flies above the mountains
In 2009, many Melbournians retreated to the forests outside the city to escape a brutal heatwave — only to bear witness to a blazing inferno Image: Getty Images/AFP/W. West

'Like half-a-dozen jumbo jets'

David Barton and his then-wife Jennifer were also riding out the extreme heat at their home in Marysville, a small town known for its quaint old guesthouses and vast surrounding expanses of tall eucalyptus forests. At around 3:45 pm, the couple noticed smoke rising from the hills in the distance.

The fire was about 35 kilometers (22 miles) away and heading south — indeed, in my direction. But then a promised shift in the winds hit and changed the course of the blaze.

The little town where David and Jennifer had started an antique business a year before would soon be in the path of a mega-wildfire that had converged along several fronts.

By now the winds were at around 120 or 130 kilometers per hour, and trees were coming down. The temperature in town was measured at 56 degrees Celsius. The couple had been helping to evacuate the elderly and infirm, and with Jennifer on the way to a hospital with an elderly woman, David finally decided to leave at around 6:45 pm.

David Barton's clapboard house before the blaze
David Barton's clapboard house before the blaze — it would be totally destroyed in the 2009 bushfires Image: David Barton

"The sky went completely black," he tells DW of the scene he fled. "There was this incredible roar coming into town that sounded like half a dozen jumbo jets taking off."

"I looked up the main street of Marysville, and I could see this wall of flame, this big glow of bright orange flame that was about 150 or 200 feet [46 to 61 meters] high, and on top of that another 300 or 400 feet of gray, churning, swirling black smoke. I thought, 'Gee, that doesn't look very good,'" says David.

The scene was so "surreal" that he only half-registered it was happening. Apart from picking up his dog and some water, he left everything else behind, including his wallet.

It was getting harder to breath as the massive fire sucked the oxygen out of the atmosphere. Yet David still didn't really believe that the blaze would reach the centre of Marysville.

Half an hour later, virtually the entire town had burned to the ground. It was an apocalyptic scene akin to the bombed-out streets of Syria, he says. He lost literally everything; none of the 30-odd guesthouses survived. 

Dealing with the aftermath

Residents and friends, who David says he warned should leave Marysville, perished in the most-deadly fire in Australian history.

Many others who believed they could "stay and defend" their property were later found dead, some holding melted hoses in their yards. They were among 34 people killed in that town — a relatively large share of the 173 who died across the state that day.

Read more: Climate change fuels Australia bushfire threat

The damage for the local communities has been incalculable. Around 60 percent of Marysville residents, including David and Jennifer, decided to not return, and instead sold out and moved closer to Melbourne. The Bartons' marriage ended less than two years later.

David says a number of relationships fell apart in the wake of Black Saturday. Indeed, he has since written a PhD thesis on the ways survivors have experienced "attachment, loss and grief," describing his own struggles with post traumatic stress disorder.

David Barton sits outside the burnt-out remains of his home
Like many Marysville residents, David Barton initially decided to not return to the town Image: David Barton

He muses that things between him and his wife might have been different if the couple had returned to Marysville to rebuild along with the remaining community. When David did move back in 2012, he was relieved to be among friends, even if so many had left.

Warning signs and complacency

Nearly 10 years after Black Saturday, the official government policy is now to "leave early" when there is an extreme fire threat.

But David fears this means many people are not preparing for the time when escape is no longer an option — especially the "tree changers," a term for former big city residents who relocate to areas like Marysville for the quiet country lifestyle.

In January, I was back at my own place in the nearby wilds on a plus-40 degree day, working on my house. To be honest, I had no systematic plan if a fire hit. My only idea was to run.

Volunteer firefighters pack away their hoses as a barn burns in the background in the 2009 Australian bushfires
Australian residents had been encouraged to prepare and defend their properties in a fire — but now are being advised to leave earlyImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. West

Following the publication of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission report, advanced warning systems were much-improved — including a new "code red" alert that is sent as a text message to residents in bushfire-prone areas in case of emergency.

Read more: Australia: Hundreds saved from wildfires in Royal National Park

Still, when fires destroyed around a hundred homes in New South Wales and western Victoria in fall 2018, it seemed a miracle that no one died.

David is concerned that as time passes, people are starting to forget Black Saturday, and that complacency has set in. "The whole thing could quite simply happen all over again," he fears.

Indeed, all it takes is a change in direction of wind.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.