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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Black Saturday Bushfires - An Eye Witness Account

Yarra Glen one month after the bushfires - 9th March 2009

AS I headed up to the Yarra Valley today, music blaring, I didn't know what to expect - not really. Turning right from Diamond Creek Rd then hanging a left into the Eltham Yarra Glen Road, what struck me first was the fragrance - it wasn't there. Except for a few fleeting seconds, then it was gone.

Each time I've travelled this road before there was the most beautiful smell which would linger as I'd wind my way up to Yarra Glen. A few kms past the Antique Store at Watson's Creek, the trees on the left were black and dead, stark and empty. A large, white, wooden cross was on one of them. I turned the music off. It was a sombre drive.

I'd intended going to De Bortoli, and mistakenly turned up the wrong road - Steels Creek Road. As I ventured further, I was surrounded by black trees, their leaves dead and withered. I passed a winery - Yileena Park, and pulled up, checked the map, then decided I'd go to this small winery instead. Turned round headed back. Dianne, the owner of the winery welcomed me, and tasting their wines, she began to speak of that terrible day. I didn't like to ask too many questions.

This is what she told me - the sun was blood red, and the last time she saw that was on the day of the Ash Wednesday bushfires, and she knew it was going to be bad. The fire came from over there, she pointed to the west, over the gully and as it neared the winery, suddenly the wind changed direction and raced up the hill. Some of the vines were lost, she changed into denim jeans, long heavy cotton shirt, blundstone boots and heavy jacket.

The fires were all around - the cypress trees across the road survived, the house didn't. Her son fought the fire which had caught on the roof of her house up the hill, for 5 days she didn't have a bath or shower - there was no water. She spent the next three days on the roof with buckets of water.

City people don't understand, they think once the fire has gone through it's over, but it isn't. The trees can burn for days, or weeks, the underground root system is still burning, and can restart new fires. The eucalpytus trees were burning, and the oil from them rose high and exploded - fireballs the size of cars whizzed ahead of the fire front and started new fires - where they landed were random, the heat was intense between 1400 and 1600 º C - one lady had large bronze statues about 4 foot high, the radiant heat burnt them and there's nothing left - not even a melted blob to show they ever existed. A man in Kinglake - his pottery moulds for the kiln melted.

There won't be a vintage this year, even though not all the grapes were burnt, those
that survived cannot be used, because once fermentation starts, the smell, and taste will be akin to an overflowing ashtray days old. She said tell people we are open, for people to start coming back to the valley. The local councils have been turning a "blind eye" she said since that day - if you had dead trees on your property, you were not allowed to cut them down.

Many trees have blown over with the wind - helped she said by a chainsaw. Dianne told me since that day, you look at things with new eyes - all the possessions we have, that we surround ourselves with, do we really need them? She told me of one lady who had a "good" dinner set that she kept for a special occasion - the dinner set is gone, why do we have things that we don't use? Just to keep - better to use them now, while we still have them. She said we surround ourselves with possessions but in the end, they're not important.

What struck me too was patches here and there of greenery - I saw two purple flowers growing by the road side amid blackened grass and stumps. One hill is blackened and dead, the one to the right was untouched. Further up the road, I saw chimneys here and there standing, nothing else, just the chimney - debris and rubble around them. I took some photos but not of the chimneys, I felt that I was looking at something I shouldn't have, so I photographed the trees. I never knew there could be such a dark shade of black.

I overshot the mark for Pinnacle Lane, and couldn't pull over so kept on going, and the further I went, the darker and blacker and deader the area became. The road branched to the left - a gravel road heading to Kinglake, I turned around and headed back. Three burnt trees had large pink crosses painted on them. Going up Pinnacle Lane was almost worse. Turned onto the Melba Highway and went to Yarra Glen for coffee before coming back home.

This was the saddest drive I've ever done. I drove in silence - the music stayed off.

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