30th Anniversary of Ash Wednesday – 16/2/1983

I was almost 8 when Ash Wednesday tore apart our little bush community. My memories are hazy, with big sections just missing. I remember afterwards though and I still get edgy when I smell bushfire smoke and goosebumps when I read about that horrific day.

My Dad had a piece published in this weeks Pakenham Gazette. I’ve cut and paste the original here if you’re interested in reading it. I also purchased Ann Fogarty’s book “Forged with Flames” that I will sit and read soon. I’ll post some pictures that I scanned at the bottom of this post too.

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ASH WEDNESDAY- A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION.

The first real inkling that we could confront any real problem emerged during Easter 1982 when one of the local farmers over the Cardinia Creek applied for a burning off permit and then decided to burn on a very windy day. Naturally the blaze jumped away from this amateur and crossed the Cardinia Creek entering the first adjoining property in Brennan Ave. The local brigade attended and proceeded to follow the rapidly moving fire down the valley of the creek damping out as they followed. This technique was cold comfort to the residents of that part of Brennan Ave. Feeling somewhat vulnerable and angered that the C.F.A.’s response appeared to leave the residents to their own devices, a street meeting was convened at the home of Murray and Lyn McLeod. The residents decided that some form of equipment needed to be purchased to protect themselves if this situation recurred. Fire pumps seemed to be the go. As a result many of the Brennan Ave cluster added such an item to their equipment lists. The Municipal attitude was less than supportive too. Inquiries were greeted with the retort, “You decided to build in a fire prone area you have to put up with it.”

Eleven months later Wednesday February 16 dawned. It had all the ingredients of a fateful day. Stifling hot, a forecast of temperatures in excess of 40 degrees, and only 6 millimetres of rain having fallen during the previous 35 days. The surrounding vegetation was already crisp and it had been necessary to attempt to green up the areas closest to the house. The remaining participant in this equation was the ever present northerly gale that regularly scorched the landscape and sure enough it soon arrived to torment those already on edge.

I spent an anxious day at Berwick High where, it must be said, the students were not over keen to work all that hard in such unpleasant conditions. Teaching in one of the History rooms, which had a northerly outlook, it was possible for the teacher to occasionally peek out onto the surrounding hills of Harkaway and Upper Beaconsfield. We had closed the curtains to keep the blistering glare and as much as possible of the withering wind out of sight and mind.

At about 3.15.p.m.I had taken yet another nervous glance out from behind the drawn curtains and was shocked to notice a billowing pall of smoke so typical of fires which are fed by eucalypts. The threatening mass appeared to be gathering at the back of the Harkaway hills. “That looks to be up your way.” I remarked to one of my students( Meg Burch) who happened to live at Belgrave from where the danger seemed to be coming.

As soon as the bell had sounded to mark the end of this edgy working day I quickly scrambled my books together and ran hastily to my car. The journey normally only took about 8 minutes back into the hills and obviously it was a rapid trip on this occasion. Simon Baldwin, who lived down High St. at the back of Guy’s Hill, remarked to me later that he felt he was in some danger as I swept past him in St. George’s Rd. nearing my destination.

I felt that this was the possible “occasion” for which we had rehearsed and made preparations. The first task was to climb on to the roof and block the down pipes so that the gutters could be filled with water. Next step was the setting up of the recently purchased little fire pump. With this accomplished, the job of damping down around the house began but I rapidly realised that, as soon as I did this, the moisture was evaporating. For this technique to be of any value at all, a delay was necessary to maximise what water was at my disposal.

The roof -top provided a vantage point from which surveys could be made of the fire’s progress. Armed with binoculars, it was possible to view the fingers of the fire front snaking their way down the slopes of the paddocks across the Cardinia Creek near Harkaway and at the end of Brennan Avenue. Through the lenses of the glasses the patterns seemed almost artistic and non-threatening.

At about 4.30.p.m. a fellow teacher and Upper Beaconsfield resident, Bob Taylor, arrived to acquaint himself with what was happening. At that stage there was certainly no suggestion that this situation was a threat to any area other than the Brennan Avenue estate. The fire was burning slowly eastwards pushing itself up against the strong northerly breeze which occasionally gusted to cause discomfort. Its searing heat etched into my face but my body had acclimatised to the temperature so it no longer felt really uncomfortable.

My family had already departed from Brennan Ave., as Gilda had suggested that the two girls, Elinor – 4 years old and Fenella -8 years were becoming distressed. They had spent some time in the swimming pool next door at the end of their school day. After some discussion with Sue Gray, our neighbour, the girls decided that it might be wiser for them to travel to the relative safety of Berwick and remain at the residence of Betty Butler, a former Berwick neighbour.

Back at Brennan Ave.Bob Taylor and I decided that it was essential to travel to see first hand what was happening at the end of the street. We were rather taken aback by the sight of small fires burning in the gardens of properties adjacent to the Cardinia Creek, each being fought by the residents and their neighbours. The house next to Ian and Sue Baird possessed an old dray, which stood in the front garden. It was ringed by small tongues of fire. It was this scene that typified the threat to property at that time. In some ways we felt a little powerless and realised that each of those living in the street would have to protect their own property as a first priority.

Communications were fairly limited but we still had power which meant that, whatever news was available came from the radio. A wind change had been predicted for later in the day. The likely hour was estimated to be around 8.00p.m. So, at best I opined little would change rapidly. At a little after 5.30.p.m.Bob left as Eleanor, his wife, had begun to become concerned at their own situation to the east -the phone was still operational (at least it was still possible to receive some calls although congestion made a mockery of full use of the service).

I felt it was essential to maintain some contact with the neighbours. The Grays had loaded a trailer and a car pulled out of their driveway, consequently a saunter across the road to the Glenister household enabled me to enjoy a cup of tea as well as discovering how others were faring. Smiths, in the house next to Marlene, were busy making preparations like everyone else.

After establishing these contacts it became fairly obvious that the fire was still advancing unhindered hence the pressure was building to make final arrangements to ensure that our house was ready to face an onslaught. Time seemed to be disappearing quickly and it was much more urgent to take action. The spouting had been completely filled, the next step was to use the fire pump and douse around the building. This activity continued until the limited supply of two-stroke expired. (What a pity I hadn’t a larger stock).

At about 8.00-8.30.p.m. a party of Peter Gray’s Beaconhills’ Golf club colleagues arrived suggesting that cutting down dangerous branches from trees might assist so that seemed like a reasonable idea to me. I followed suit. With the assistance of Geoff Brooks, a eucalypt shading the tool shed was attacked and it proceeded to fall onto the shed. Despite our efforts it was impossible to budge. It would have to remain.

From the vantage of the roof it was now possible to witness the flames crowning in the treetops just west of Fraser Avenue some 200 metres away. The effect was unnerving. The gums shook uncontrollably as if some giant hand was gripping them by the trunk. A roaring, cracking sound warned of the danger. The forecast wind change had begun to exert its deadly influence.

A police-car had previously cruised up and down the street. It was now pleading with residents to evacuate. Others were packing precious items into their vehicles and making their withdrawal and, after all, who was I to disagree with the law. The time had come to leave everything and join my family. I reasoned that a house could be always rebuilt.

What to take? Such a decision was difficult but of necessity had to be made hastily. The cat (Aly Khan), had been given to us by the Sifrars before they returned to Europe. I felt it was impossible to leave an integral member of the family behind. Next – slides of our overseas trip – memories are important – our Wedding album joined the rest as that would not be given a re-run either.

I returned the petrol pump and the chainsaw to the interior of the house, drew the curtains, closed the windows and left some buckets of water up against the building as per instructions of good fire prevention technique. I wondered if any of this activity would be of any value after all.

It was a quick dash up the drive to the little Camira parked opposite. A U-turn was negotiated into the stream of other departing vehicles. It was all becoming just a tad frantic, with residents joining the retreating parade wondering all the time whether any thing would withstand the holocaust that was about to be unleashed upon the innocent village of Upper Beaconsfield.

As the atmosphere began to be choked with dust, clouds of pungent smoke filled the sky restricting the vision to the vehicles in the immediate vicinity. The police had only allowed us one option and we were employing it. Evacuation seemed quite logical then. It would only be after the post mortems that any alternative would be viewed as a possibility.

I was desperate to keep moving, but traffic slowed to almost a halt as we neared the shops. The S.E.S. was directing traffic at the Salisbury Rd./ Emerald Rd. intersection but, instead of a smooth operation, chaos was the controlling factor. The person waving cars on actually managed to urge drivers to weave their way around Charring Cross and only heightened both the tension and confusion by this procedure which only added extra distance on to the journey.

The “dash” down the hill followed next. The madcap convoy edged its way forward in a bumper-to-bumper procession like some sort of pre-historic reptile slithering to safety. We had been advised to wind our windows up as we descended from the besieged township. As the convoy neared the Guy’s Hill store a swirling blanket of ash, live embers and other rubbish was blown across the road. The prevailing wind had reached gale force and was engulfing everything in its wake.” Don’t slow down now!” I implored the drivers in front of me.

Finally the relative safety of the Cardinia Creek plains was in sight and I headed off to join my waiting family at the Butler residence in Castlegate Court. Their house was a stone’s throw from Akoonah Park, which had been set up as a crisis centre.

Everyone was relieved to see me although I couldn’t reassure them much that 10 Brennan would remain unscathed. The next ten hours were spent drifting backwards and forwards from Butlers to Akoonah Park piecing information together. I encountered friends, associates and neighbours huddled at the Park anxiously awaiting news of loved ones or those who had been rendered incommunicado by the flight from the fire to other locations cut off by the monster which threatened us all.

News! Who would dare call it by that term! Most of what could be over heard was the sort of stuff that nightmares are made of.” Upper Beaconsfield’s stuffed!” (this was a more polite phrase than the actual description) one forceful personality insisted. “Nothing’s left standing,” another announced. “The General Store has gone, so has the Church as well as the Primary School,” lamented a third. I just found it incredible that the damage might be so complete and the sceptic in me resisted. I met Barry Smith, who had been returning from work in Dandenong. He was, like many other husbands, most anxious about his family trapped up on the hill above us all. The Princes Highway resembled a huge car park – it was reminiscent of the Berwick Show – after all it was almost that time of the year anyhow. There was nothing left to do but wait -unlike some of those desperadoes who took on the police and the road – block.

An extremely uncomfortable night was spent on the Butler floor. The heat, the spectre of tongues of fire, the mournful wail of sirens, occasional flashing red lights – all combined to deprive us all of a restful night. As light began to filter the first suggestion of a new day the faintest sound of raindrops heralded some minute optimism. I hastily dressed again in my overalls and donned the gumboots, which had provided essential protection the day before. Armed with a supply of two-stroke I took young Carl Butler with me and decided to return to Upper Beaconsfield but this time by a roundabout route which would avoid the Police Roadblock set up on the main Emerald Road.

We set off to travel the back way via O’Neill Road and up into Telegraph Road thence into Upper Beaconsfield. It was 6.30.a.m.and little was stirring in the vicinity. As we wound our way up into the foothills again, the daylight revealed some of the devastation which the night had concealed. Charred, bloated bodies of stock that had failed to avoid the clutches of the fire-devil. Acres of blackened pastures with fence posts still burning like the remnants of a barbecue, the” vegetation” that made it possible to distinguish where a back-road met the verge was now almost impossible to identify so universal was the black blanket.

A busy Fire truck, still engaged in mopping up operations, paid little heed to us as we entered Telegraph Road. Other groups, similarly engaged, were also at the side of these tracks. What a contrast we observed as the journey took us into Salisbury Road. To the north of the road the fire had left the properties untouched while, as we entered the village itself, the destruction was self-evident. The Church certainly had gone so too the General store. What hope did those places have which had been at the forefront of this conflagration? The village resembled the type of scene I had associated with a war zone. A numb sensation gripped us both as we slowly negotiated what used to be the track along St. George’s Road. People’s homes lay in mangled, smouldering ruins. Power poles dangled precariously like half finished cigarettes suspended from the wire which miraculously still swayed aloft. The picture of 10 Brennan, I imagined, would be similar with perhaps what was left of our slow combustion heater standing out amongst the char.

The Camira pushed its nose around the corner past what had been the Flood’s recently acquired home, the Lombardy’s farmhouse – simply heaps of smoking wood and into Brennan Avenue. I hardly dared to look as we descended the hill. My heart thumped noticeably as our destination loomed. Imagine the joy, relief, sheer elation as we discovered that 10 Brennan stood defiantly amongst the hectares of desolation. It was almost like some lunar landscape broken only by the tiniest island of untouched bricks and mortar. The truth of the matter was that, of all those Brennan Avenue homes, which battled against the blazes since early afternoon on Ash Wednesday, not one had been destroyed. All remained intact, perhaps a testimony to the preparations and to the crisis they faced 11 months previously.

After parking the car we set out to survey the damage. Small fires still licked about the perimeters of the building, posing potential threats. These were quickly rendered safe by the handy 1.5 horse power pump which had been worth its weight in gold. How fortunate we had been! A gum had fallen and burnt just two metres from the house. The treated pine retaining wall at the front of the house still smouldered but was also doused.

A helmeted figure loomed above the fence – the heavily disguised persona of Ross Neilson (local car dealer) – simply inquiring whether all was O.K. He departed on his small motor cycle as soon as I was able to reassure him that everything was under control now. Minutes later Barry Smith dismounted from his motor bike to make similar inquiries and revealed that he had visited earlier. He managed to kick off a couple of burning boards from the retaining fence to prevent any chance of a risk to the main building. He conveyed the unwanted news of the possibility of bodies being discovered down the track at the back of Flood’s newly acquired property.

We scanned the entire vicinity of the house to assess damage. The garden had almost been obliterated. Amazingly that shed, which suffered the indignity of having a tree resting on its roof, stood defiantly – if a little singed. There remained not a trace of the offending tree though. Having secured the house and being satisfied that the danger had abated I locked up and returned to Berwick with the miracle tidings.

AFTERMATH:
My family travelled to Brighton to stay with Gilda’s family as a result of there being no power. Meanwhile I returned and spent that night sleeping on the floor at Peter Gray’s house. There emerged a strong sense of community as neighbours rendered assistance to one another. I showered at the Collis’ home, had meals elsewhere, and was able to share experiences with other residents in the lucky Brennan Avenue. At night we were able to gaze at the Silberbauer hill across the valley from Peter Gray’s lounge-room. That hill resembled a Christmas-tree at night with a series of glowing red lights – the remnants of fires still smouldering. Together with this there came the cracking, whiplash noise of trees falling to their doom as they yielded to the fire serpent.

At approximately 2.30.am.that night, another disturbing sound shattered our restless sleep. A rumbling noise grew along with the babble of raised, excited voices. Accompanying this was the flash of a spotlight searching from building to building. It was a band of Looters! The truck thundered past realising that the houses were still occupied. Unfortunately for these vermin an alert resident in St. George’s Road had already contacted the police and this band was intercepted before they were able to escape out of the area.

The business of cleaning up occupied my time in the days which followed. When my family returned we spent time placing food out for the wild life. Wombats and Wallabies had left their signs of survival about. This became a community task as the usual sustenance for animals had been decimated. One of the “benefits” of the fires was the opportunity provided for walking across landscapes normally densely matted with verdant growth. It was possible to travel the reaches of both the Cardinia Creek and the Stoney Creek. However the recovery process soon was evident as the resilient Australian bush demonstrated its adaptability.

Ash Wednesday and its Aftermath certainly will live deep in our memories as a unique experience. Hopefully these notes will permit others to share a little of that powerful occasion.

Rob Hansen – December 1992 on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Ash Wednesday.

 

7pm ash wednedsay

ash wed I

our house

bloody scary me

Regeneration II

Regeneration

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~ by Fen on February 23, 2013.

9 Responses to “30th Anniversary of Ash Wednesday – 16/2/1983”

  1. My mother has lived in Pakenham for nearly forty years and my brothers and sister mostly grew up there. I should have been more connected with the area, Upper Beacy, so well known to my family, but the number of areas where the fires were extreme that day was overwhelming. I certainly remember the blackened hills afterwards. I guess that was before the Berwick bypass opened.

    It was a nicely written piece about a terrifying day.

  2. Far out, so darn lucky. Poor wildlife. I hate it how they always show you the poor suffering animals burnt on the news.

    I remember Ash Wednesday. We were living in the Mid North(SA) at that time. And there were fires burning literally everywhere. Clare Valley was only half an hours drive from us, and that went up.
    That last photo of you two girls by the regrowth reminds me of driving through Clare months after, and all the black trees with the new bright green regrowth…. amazing what this country can put up with.

  3. You were the most enchanting little child, then you became a goth.

    Well done, Rob. Fascinating.

  4. Hi Fen,

    Would you mind if I post this on a couple of CFA websites about preparing the community?

    Daniel

  5. Whoah…… we had Ash Wednesday at pretty much the same time in South Australia, too and even though I lived about 20km away from the fire, the heat (43C) and the smoke and having half of my class fearing that their parents wouldn’t be able to get home from Adelaide was a very frightening day. The sky was orange but thick with smoke and ash….. thanks for sharing your story.

  6. It’s something we’ll all remember. One of our neighbours’s had nephew in the police and CFA so we all got together to make sandwiches, coffee and find blankets which she took up to the volunteers. We didn’t have much money in those days but we found enough food to fill a station wagon.

  7. OMG, she is simply too, too gorgeous! Many, many congratulations to you, I just know you will spoil her rotten.

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