When history lecturer Don Garden and his family moved to Mount Macedon, little could they have known that the February 1983 bushfires were only a few weeks away.
In an article he wrote for The Age less than a month after Ash Wednesday, Don described the harrowing experience of losing their home twice in the fires.
Forty years on, that article is republished here.
‘The ruins of the buildings still burned fiercely, but we realised we had survived’
With thanks to Don Garden and The Age.
Originally published in March 1983.
We were attracted to Mount Macedon by its beauty – the magnificent trees and gardens, and the old-world character of the houses and other buildings in the main street.
When the chance arose we bought some land, about 700 metres above sea level and with a view stretching southward for 30 kilometres or more. We heard much talk about the mist line, and jokes were made by friends about Clayton’s view (the view you have when you are not having a view – because of the mist).
Undeterred, we planned a new home and we sold our house in Melbourne. My wife, Judy, was offered a teaching position at Braemar College, which is on the north face of the mountain, towards Woodend. We also had the fortune to find a house to rent only a short walk away from where our new house was to be built. We moved there on 12 January.
All was going so smoothly that we used to comment that it could not last – there had to be a disaster. Unfortunately, we were right.
The temperature on 1 February was predicted to pass 40. It was the first day of school at Braemar for Judy and our elder son, Robin. I decided to avoid the heat of Melbourne and work at home, keeping company with Richard, our younger son, who was not due to start at the primary school until the following day.
The morning was warm, but it was not unpleasant, and we felt very contented as we finished lunch, looking out on the screen of green trees which surrounded the house.
Richard decided that we should set up a bird bath, and wandered outside.
I was contemplating what to do next when a fire engine went past, up the mountain. Soon a second and third followed. I went out to see what was happening, and was met by an unexpected blast of hot wind, and the sight of huge clouds of smoke being torn across the sky. There was a fire high on the mountain.
A man from the CFA stopped to tell us that we should be safe but instructed us to dress properly and to turn the car around so we could leave quickly if it became necessary.
We did that and, feeling slightly foolish, I took the cat, my manuscripts, bank books and insurance policies and put them in the car.
The next hour or so was filled with a confusing assortment of events. A phone call from Judy to tell me that she and Robin had been evacuated from Braemar and were safe. A phone call to my parents to assure them that the fire was not near us. A distressed woman from one of the large estates who had arrived in her Rolls to save her valuable paintings, but was not allowed near her house.
It was becoming obvious that the fire would pass behind the house. Huge sheets of flame began to appear through the smoke, and the sound of exploding trees grew nearer.
Richard and I set to work to clear a break, circling the back of the house. I felt we could stop the fire there if it came towards us.
I sent Richard inside to get something while I continued the clearing. When he had not returned some minutes later I decided to go and find him.
As I came around the corner of the house I was confronted with the sight of a 10-metre-high wall of flame approaching rapidly through the dense bush across the road from the house. I yelled to Richard, who dropped a bag of calculators, electronic games and other treasures he had been gathering, and I sent him to the car.
The time had come to evacuate.
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What should we do next? The best thing seemed to be to unite the family, so Richard and I drove around the bottom of the mountain to Woodend, to where the Braemar people had been evacuated. The emotions which rose when I found Judy and Robin had to be controlled, for we were surrounded by dozens of students.
The main question facing us was whether the house, with all our belongings so lovingly collected and so laboriously packed and moved, had been destroyed. Back to the Mount Macedon fire station we drove, but could find no information.
After an hour of tortured waiting I hitched a lift with a driver taking a load of water up the mountain. The slow drive in the heavily burdened truck seemed interminable. Finally, we turned the corner approaching the house, and a scene of devastation lay before us.
Our place, The Loft, was lofty no more. Only two stark sentinels stood, one at either end of where the house had been. The bright red stove which had been in the kitchen stood out in stark contrast to the black and white of the surrounding ruin. The fireplace was intact, and on it stood two of Judy’s favourite ornaments – an elegant figurine and a pottery bowl. I shall never forget that sight.
What do you do when you have lost almost everything you own?
We were fortunate in two respects. First, it had not been our house, and we did not have that emotional and financial burden to bear.
Second, we have a united wider family, and Judy’s parents and mine have been friends for 40 years. So we knew we had people to whom we could turn. The natural thing was to return to Melbourne, to the haven of our families.
It was traumatic on the day after the fire to return to rake through the debris. We salvaged the figurine and the bowl, and a few minor items of pottery and metals. Pathetic scorched remnants.
The most emotional time was when we went to see if our land had been damaged. When we saw that the blackened frontier had been stopped within five metres of our boundary, we were overwhelmed. At least we had something to build upon – in more senses than one.
Several offers of accommodation were made. An Anglican clergyman and his wife offered the use of their weekender, further down the mountain, until our new house was built.
Judy and the boys started school again, and I began to settle into the routine of travelling down to Melbourne by train. Some sense of order and peace was starting to return.
Wednesday 16 February was predicted to be yet another 40-degree day, and yet another total fire ban. It was hot, windy and thoroughly unpleasant in the city.
I drove home from the Macedon station, depressed and with a headache. After dinner we decided to spend a relaxed evening watching a film on television, the first time since the fire. Unfortunately we missed the last 10 minutes of The 39 Steps, for the power went off at 10.20pm.
The wind had been building steadily and there was a smell of smoke, but we knew it could not happen a second time. Still, we went outside and were looking at the glow in the sky of what we believed was the distant Trentham fire.
Suddenly a car turned into the drive. It was friends to tell us to evacuate. The fire was approaching at great speed, on a wide front.
The drive to the Counter Disaster College, the evacuation centre, was eerie. There were no street or house lights, but signs of people hurriedly throwing belongings into their cars and preparing to leave.
At the college we lined up with other cars in the bitumen car park. There was disorder, but no panic. We were told to close the windows and stay in the cars.
What passed over us is almost indescribable. I suppose it could be termed a fire storm. The wind was so strong that it knocked the firemen off their feet. The air was full of burning material. The heat was intense. We sweated until our clothes were wet. Nearby the inside of a truck burst into flame – the window had been left open. It was soon doused. Thirty metres away in one direction two old buildings were in flame.
This hell lasted for half an hour, and then it began to calm. The ruins of the buildings still burned fiercely, and it was too hot to remain comfortable outside the cars. But we realised that we had survived.
For a while I felt useless. I went outside, but there seemed to be nothing to do. I set out to walk through the streets to see whether the homes of our friends, and the house we had just moved into, were still standing.
The sights of that walk will remain with me for ever.
Trees burning and falling in showers of sparks. The remains of perhaps 20 homes, the last flames putting an end to their rubble. A group of cars huddled near the ruin of Richard’s primary school. One of the neighbours from our block of land, convinced his house had been engulfed. I passed two cars in which, I was later informed, bodies of victims lay.
Making my way around fallen trees and power lines I reached our new residence, and ran up the long drive. It had happened a second time. All that we had been given in the previous fortnight was gone.
Judy and I could not stay there any longer. We took our boys and drove to Melbourne, arriving at my parents’ home at 5.30am. Sleep came unwillingly.
Everyone knows of the generosity which has since been displayed to the fire victims. We were perhaps fortunate that we had been through it before. We knew what it was like. Perhaps we were still numb from the first time.
This time, however, our land was destroyed. The huge mountain trees are black stalks. The beautiful deciduous trees now brown and dying.
However, our pile of bricks which are to be used for the footings of the house are still standing there. Their redness and solidity offer some sort of hope for a foundation for the future. We have made our commitment to the mountain and we will build on it. With time, water and a lot of hard work it can be made beautiful again. How much of its character can be restored remains to be seen.
But we will be doing our bit.
Each year since 1983, the arrival of 16 February (and 1 February when I was also burned out on Mount Macedon in that year) has created some resonance. Fortunately, while it was never traumatic, the anniversary has had less impact over time. I was vaguely aware that this year is the 40th anniversary, but it was only when I was asked to write this postscript that I re-read the original article and began to cast my mind back and re-evaluate the experience. It was fascinating to read the article I wrote when the impact was so immediate, emotional and ongoing.
My family (Judy, Robin and Richard) were relatively fortunate as we were safe and we did not lose our own home. Sadly, the homes into which we had recently moved before the two fires, most of our possessions and our block of land were all consumed. Unlike many of those who were dispossessed, we were able to find accommodation on the mountain. Apart from a year or two of feeling somewhat stressed by the recovery process, and at times confused (did we buy those missing scissors before or since the fire?), I do not believe we suffered emotional problems. Much of what stress there was, and the emotional challenges, came from building our new home. Our builder went broke before the house was finished and this resulted in more than a year of delays and frustration. After a time the house was sufficiently advanced for us to move in, although substantially camping, before finally another builder finished it.
Judy taught at Braemar College for several years before moving in 1998 to Aitken College. Sadly, she suddenly and unexpectedly died in 2001. She had been very popular with her students and colleagues and her death caused a great emotional outpouring in the Macedon region.
Robin and Richard completed their schooling at Braemar before moving to Melbourne where they still reside.
For most of my working life I taught History at the University of Melbourne.
One of the most significant effects that the bushfires had on me, at least for a couple of decades, was a subtle change in my values and my sense of place. I had a new feeling of detachment about some things – a new sense of priorities. Being burned out and losing nearly all our possessions brought a realisation that worldly goods are relatively unimportant – you can always replace clothing, a television, a pair of scissors, etc. The loss of my personal library was more significant, but even favourite works could generally be replaced. Similarly, for many years I felt little connection with anywhere I lived because it was really only a house.
That said, I now live on a small hill near the sea and wonder what impacts climate change and sea level rise will have. Will I end up living on an island? That points to a personal response to the fires that I consider positive. The bushfires heightened my emerging sense of environmental awareness, of the challenges of living on the continent of “droughts and flooding rains” and the emerging global environmental crisis. As the fires were happening, Bob Brown, David Bellamy and hundreds of other volunteers were risking their wellbeing by challenging the Tasmanian government’s determination to dam the Franklin/Gordon Rivers. When we were able, we watched what was happening on television and it stirred my green consciousness.
One consequence was that I became an environmental historian and spent many years teaching and writing about the human relationship with the natural environment in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Perhaps not surprisingly, I developed a particular focus on climate history. It has been both rewarding and frustrating.
The fires were transformative for all of us, but we survived and went on to rebuild.
~ Don Garden
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- The 1983 article has been reproduced here with permission from Don Garden and The Age. Many thanks to them both.
- The photographs that accompany the article are from Sydney Oats. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence.
- Information about the Ash Wednesday bushfires, including details of the East Trentham fire and how it spread to Macedon and Mount Macedon, can be found on the website of the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience.