Wednesday March 22, 2017
Those are harsh words. They were used by the Royal Commission into the 2009 fires to describe the towns of Marysville and Kinglake after Black Saturday. The amount of loss and destruction is pretty unfathomable, even 8 years later.
Riding into town yesterday, a first, cursory glance makes it hard to imagine such an event occurred here. The first thing you see as you ride into town is The Crossways Inn – one of the original resorts built in town. It was saved by one man with one bucket – who hid underneath the nearby creek bridge during the worst of the fire that night. Then you round the corner and all of the deciduous trees survived. They are large and leafy and established – there’s no harsh, sunny vacancy along the street. Most of the business buildings have been rebuilt – but in such a way that they don’t look ostentatious or brand new. Of course, a slightly closer look reveals stoops that lead to nowhere, foundations poking through grass on empty lots and a brand new visitors centre and police station. The landscaping is almost too well-planned. But, a first glance makes it hard to believe that only around 14 buildings in a town of more than 500 people survived the fires (only 3 of those on the main street).
The fire that wiped out Marysville, the Murrindindi fire, started around 3pm. It looked like it would miss Marysville. But around 6pm that evening, the winds changed and things went to shit. By 6.45pm, the fire had engulfed the town. The stories of survival are heart-wrenching. 40 people died in the fire, 35 of those in town. Survivors congregated on the Oval and watched the town burn through the night. They were eventually evacuated to Alexandra the next morning. The police believed for a long time that the fire was caused by arson. (It eventually was found to be an electrical fault.) They sealed off the town for six weeks after the fire to conduct investigations and identify all of the human remains. I cannot imagine going through that night and then not being allowed back to my property for six weeks. It would be such a huge, enforced pause on coming to terms with what happened and figuring out how to move forward.
Marysville has always been a tourist town, and Melbourne has been very good at returning and supporting the town. It’s a weekday off-season right now, but there are still a decent number of people in town. I head off early for the bushwalk up to Steavensons Falls. Everywhere I walk today was burnt out in the fires, but the Aussie bush is adapted to fire and recovers quickly – so it is interesting to see how different species have recovered and just what 8 years on actually looks like.
They are doing some tree-felling work up at the falls. It’s early enough no one else is there. The DELWP guy supervising the contractor has gorgeous eyes. He asks if I’ve walked up from town and if the trail is clear or needs any attention. As I’m walking back down the trail, a group of about 15 senior bushwalkers are heading up. I smile and say hello to each little group – my parents do this exact same thing every Wednesday, so I feel like I’m saying hello to their Oz cousins!
I had originally planned to hike up to the lookout – but it’s still cloudy and somewhat foggy up there, so I ditch those plans. Instead I walk back along one of the town firebreaks. This spits me out on the town street that would have been the first to be hit by the fire. There would have been many deaths along this road, and it does not look like many of the houses survived. It is almost all brand new construction or empty lots. Further down the road, the town-side of the street has mostly been rebuilt, but the forest side has not. There are fences, driveways and steps leading nowhere. There is an abandoned pool.
It is definitely a bit creepy to walk through the residential areas. Yes, there is an impressive amount of rebuilding that has been done – but it makes you wonder the stories behind the vacant blocks. Some are for sale. Some aren’t. Have the people moved on and moved elsewhere? Is this a block where the occupants didn’t survive? Apparently, there are a fair number of people moving up here from Melbourne ‘for the lifestyle’. I really can’t imagine moving into a community that lost so many residents and all of its infrastructure. Yes, the infrastructure has all been replaced – and the community centre, the hospital and the convention centre are many times better than what they replaced, I’m sure. But how would you feel buying a block from someone or their family of a life lost or irrevocably changed? How would the community meld the survivors and the newcomers?
I ponder all of this as I do the other bushwalks near town and wander through Bruno’s Sculpture Garden. This is a must do – the sculptures are incredibly creative and well-done and all has been rebuilt since 2009.
I do about 12-15 kms of walking in the morning before returning to the caravan park to clean up my bike. It’s nearly 1pm, but the Bicentennial Trail guy is just now getting ready to leave. It can be really hard to force yourself back out there after a rest day!
I buy some citrus cleaner and some rags from the supermarket and go to work on the bike. Poor bike, it really does need some attention. But once I get all the grit cleaned off and out of the drivetrain and get a bit of lube back on the chain and cables – all is smooth again. I’m on a roll, so I go do my laundry, too. It’s really just my bike clothes that are dirty, but never pass up a washing machine if it is easily available. The front desk guy tells me the dryers take $4 of coins, but I put in $1 and the machine defaults to 98 minutes – so that is a steal. Too bad my clothes are all quick-dry and only need 10 minutes.
I eat, I watch TV, I plan out the next day on the maps. But all the while, in the back of my head, I’m still trying to process what the people in this town must feel. At the time of the Black Saturday fires, I was in the middle of doing a PhD that examined how communities and fire agencies could build trust before, during and after a fire. My study area was another part of Victoria that had gone through major fires in 2006/07. I found during the PhD that the recovery stage was a really neglected period. So I wonder how things have changed since then and how it has played out here.
In my mind for days will be the images from the Phoenix Museum that showed aerial shots of the town post-fire after all the building debris had been cleared. This is red clay country, so each of the blocks looked like a raw red wound on the earth – the town looked like hundreds of open wounds lying bare on the earth. They have come so far, but I know there is so much further to go.