Black Saturday Bushfires
by Steve Meacher
Saturday, February 7
The weather conditions in Toolangi on Saturday 7 February 2009 were exactly as we had been warned throughout the previous week, very hot with a blustery wind from the north. As predicted, the fire weather danger was the worst ever but by late-afternoon it was beginning to feel as though we might be lucky and the crisis would pass uneventfully. There were no announcements on the radio and nothing reported on the CFA website or the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s FireWeb.
Then, with a phone call, it all changed. We heard that Kinglake was on fire and soon after, a pall of smoke was visible, thickening rapidly to the north. Within minutes we were also enveloped and ash began to fall. By 6:45pm it was as dark as a starless night and then the power went off. Neighbours met on the road by torchlight, trying to work out what was happening. The fire was to the north, south and west of us.
After about an hour, the smoke began to thin and the sight of the light through the smoke initially caused heightened concern that flames were approaching, until we saw the sun and realised with some surprise that it was still daytime. During that time, unknown to us, Castella and the western end of Toolangi was on fire and members of our community were fighting to protect their lives and properties. Some had managed to get out. Tragically, some had not.
Few of us slept that night. We patrolled our properties and those who had transistors listened to the radio. We were warned to be alert for ‘ember attack’ but it was clear the announcers on the radio had no idea where Toolangi was. Twice on Saturday night it was described as being ‘somewhere in the Latrobe Valley’, prompting me to phone in and put them straight!
Sunday, February 8
On Sunday, ash was continuing to fall, roadblocks had been established and rumours were beginning to grow that Kinglake (20 kilometres west) and Marysville (40 kilometres east) had been badly hit. But we still had little contact with the outside world and no idea what the outside world was hearing. A demonstration on the route of the Sugarloaf Pipeline at Castella had been planned for the next morning and I managed to contact people in Melbourne to cancel it, which I later heard they found rather funny in the circumstances.
Monday, February 9
On Monday I drove down to Castella and the level of destruction at that end of our community became clear. Police officers at the Castella Road roadblock couldn’t tell me if the Melba Highway was open, so I drove on to the main junction and found that it was closed in both directions, to Yarra Glen and to Yea. The fire was continuing to move eastwards through the Pauls Range to our south, so both roads to Healesville were also closed. Toolangi and Castella were effectively isolated.
Tuesday, February 10
On Tuesday we called our first community meeting at the C.J. Dennis Hall. The CFA was concerned that Castella residents were out of contact, and I spent the morning driving through Castella telling everyone I could find about the meeting at noon. People agreed to pass on the message to neighbours who had stayed, some offered to go around Banksia Court and others to Glenwood Drive, while I continued down Crooke Road. Over 70 people attended that first meeting and two sign-on boards were set up, one for people to ask for what they needed and the other for people to offer what they had to share. Speakers came from the DSE and CFA and for the first time we began to get some real information about what had happened, and was still happening, all around us.
Just before the meeting started, Anne Leadbeater called from Kinglake. She was heading emergency response there for Murrindindi Shire Council and suggested a community meeting the next day also, which we announced. During the meeting a van arrived from Healesville RSL loaded with egg and bacon rolls, which made a very welcome lunch. Shortly after, a truck arrived with further supplies, which Anne had forwarded from Kinglake. The goods were carried into the hall and community members spontaneously rallied to get things organised. Thus, the hall became a de facto relief centre.
That evening a community dinner was provided at the Singing Gardens, while the Toolangi Tavern catered for the emergency services personnel. From then on, the two establishments generously shared the provision of catering lunches and dinners for the community, firefighters and police. During that first dinner, a phone call came through warning that the fire, which had crossed Chum Creek Road just south of Toolangi the previous day, was closing in on properties on Myers Creek Road and was expected in Toolangi in 15 minutes. Dinner was abandoned and everyone rushed home, but the fire actually continued moving east, up the ridge of Mount St Leonard.
Daily meetings continued in the hall, supplies continued to arrive, a generator was donated, and our resident electrician connected it to the hall so that we could connect a mobile cold store that had been loaned to the CFA. It meant we also had lights and people could recharge their mobile phones. Telstra organised a wireless broadband modem so that it became possible to access updated information via the internet, such as road closures from the VicRoads website. Local teenagers were able to bring in their laptops to contact and reassure their mates. Having power in the hall also made it possible to use a computer to coordinate essential services, such as hazardous tree removal and water-tank cleaning and replenishment (we don’t have a piped supply up here). We had to print lists and maps because we are outside the Melway boundary and the drivers didn’t know the area. Rubbish collection also became an issue because, without power, quantities of food in fridges and freezers was going off. The power remained off for eleven days, although for properties away from the main road it took several more days to reconnect.
By Friday the Toolangi-Castella relief centre was running smoothly and two officers from the Department of Human Services and Red Cross were set up in the Community House. They had no idea there were so many of us and quickly made arrangements for a full range of services, beginning the next day. Australian Army medical staff stopped off daily, between Kinglake and Marysville, to provide treatment and write prescriptions, which were fulfilled and delivered to the hall by a delightful couple who were also doing a daily run for Kinglake residents. The Victorian Animal Aid Trust from Coldstream set up a caravan to assist with pets, livestock and wildlife. People with access to water and a generator offered the use of a washing machine to those who needed it.
A week and a half after Black Saturday it rained and the ongoing threat finally receded. Over time the need for emergency relief diminished, roads re-opened, power and phones came back on, and the focus turned to recovery and restoration. We wound down the Relief Centre and the Community House called a meeting at which everyone was invited to present their ideas on what was needed and to commit to driving those ideas. In March 2009 regular monthly meetings began. This led to establishment of a local SMS contact system for important information on community activities, full funding of a non-motorised general-purpose track connecting our communities from Mount St Leonard Road to the Melba Highway and completion of an upgrade to catering standards of the kitchen in the hall. New Community Fireguard groups formed. The garden restoration group obtained donations from nurseries and local growers and over the last weekend of August gave away 10,000 plants to anyone who needed them. Many grateful recipients came from outside the immediate area and there was a tremendous atmosphere of cooperation, generosity and appreciation. The group is continuing its work and has also helped other fire-affected communities by providing advice to their local groups. Its achievements were recognised by being selected for an Australia Day Community Event of the Year Award.
Not all our initiatives have been as successful. Attempts to establish a public transport service have been continually frustrated – so far. We still don’t receive daily newspapers. The work of recovery continues and the group has recently been officially recognised as a Community Recovery Committee.
While the events of February 2009 were an unimaginable tragedy, they have also had a positive effect on our community. The experience of being isolated from, and seemingly invisible to, the outside world while surrounded by devastating fires, has forged bonds within the community that will not be easily broken. We stuck together during the days of emergency and continue to work together on recovery and restoration. We are constantly reminded that the beauty of our mountain environment is not to be taken for granted and how lucky we are that it still exists. Our realisation of the need to protect this special region and its communities is greater than ever, as is our determination to do so, together.
Toolangi and Castella are here to stay!