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Year Book : Year Book 2010
FBA A01 By Paul McGeough The painful truth The nation is mourning and searching for answers. How do we make sense of losing so many good people, of so much devastation? The search begins in the ashes. PICTURE: JUSTIN McMANUS FEBRUARY 14-15, 2009 No. 53,473 First published 1831 $2.30 (inc GST) The one that got away . . . Tony Thompson on his Marysville property where he defended all nine cottages and his house from the bushfires. Photo: Glen McCurtayne ony Thompson kicked back, sipping a beer. It was last Saturday and he was oblivious to the convoy hurtling past his front gate as dozens of terrified families fled a satanic inferno that was set to reduce the pretty, high-country town of Marysville to an ashen graveyard with a postcode. He knew a bit about the Victorian bush. Ten years previously, Thompson had survived a fire in the Dandenongs. Now, he assured the Canadians who had hired a tourist cottage on his 25-hectare farm that the smoke seeping into the valley from the west was a long way off. ''Not a problem,'' he comforted the four tourists who just days earlier had retreated south, to escape the other extreme of the Australian bush -- the Queensland floods. ''That fire's not coming this way.'' Minutes later Thompson's mobile phone rang. The caller was an insistent friend, telling him that if he was going to get out, he needed to go now. ''I said: 'No. I've got three blokes here. We can handle it.' '' With that feisty declaration, Thompson rolled the dice for his effort in what was to become Australia's greatest bushfire disaster -- the horrific infernos of last weekend, a new milestone in national grieving in which no iteration of statistics quite conveys the enormity of the tragedy or the combustible fusion of nature's excess with man's shortcomings. The death toll still stands at 181 -- but with seven victims in intensive care and the search for bodies continuing slowly, it will rise. More than 1800 homes were torched as hundreds of fires wrenched clumps from the rural landscape from Bendigo to Beechworth. Thousands were made homeless in more than a dozen bush towns and hamlets as half a million hectares of farm and forest were reduced to a Jurassic darkness. Separated by the Great Dividing Range, Marysville and Kinglake took the brunt of the fires. All but three buildings in Marysville, home to more than 500 people, were reduced to stench and rubble. Kinglake, too, was all but wiped from the map. Hamlets, with inviting names like Strathewen, Flowerdale and Narbethong, were also obliterated as billowing smoke made day into night and walls of fire and fallen trees boxed- in many who tried to escape. Australians responded in their inimitable ways. As a formidable relief machine swung into action there was an outpouring of donations and sympathy, and admiration for the emergency services, especially Victoria's volunteer Country Fire Authority. In tears, the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, delivered a dismal judgment on the catastrophe that was about the forces of nature rather than the failing of the emergency services: ''The firefighters were hit early and hit hard . . . fires were impossible to control.'' Likening the disaster to hell's fury, Kevin Rudd committed the Federal Government to a rebuilding the stricken and disappeared communities. On Tuesday the Prime Minister said: ''Hear this from the Government and the Parliament of the nation. Together we'll rebuild each of these communities -- brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall.'' And, five nights after the worst of the fires, as a picture of a tiny fire truck entering the maw of the fires flashed on a television in the bar of the Country Club Hotel in Yea, a town on the northern edge of the fire zone, a pretty young bar attendant stood rooted to the spot. Slack-jawed, she held a cooked dinner in each hand as she saluted the bravery of the firefighters -- ''F---ing hell!'' At his small farming and tourism venture just five kilometres north of Marysville, Tony Thompson formed a view that his wife was nagging about the pump, which he had brought up to the shed and which she believed needed to be down by the river, a good distance from their house. Now, with the real threat of fire, he enlisted his brother-in-law to help position the pump beside a dam right next to the house. Working fast, they encircled the house with metal irrigation pipes. ''We got it done 10 or 15 minutes before the fire hit,'' he said. ''Suddenly it was barrelling over the mountains. We braced, looking to the south-west, but when we turned around it was coming from behind us -- flying down that paddock.'' A dense cloud of smoke settled over the property and, as the pipes flooded the area around the house, Thompson and his brother-in-law figured saving his nine tourist cottages, another house on the property and all his farm buildings was a lost cause. ''We didn't have a hope in hell,'' he said. Given the manner in which the fire was attacking from the eastern side of the property, they were unable to adhere to the Victorian authorities' stay-and-defend strategy for fighting bush fires, which required them to douse any spot fires and then seek shelter indoors as the fire passed through the property. ''We started fighting and it kept going for five hours,'' he said. His wife, Penny, and the Canadian tourists were in the house, passing drinks and wet towels to the men whenever they passed a door or window. At other times, they ran through the irrigation sprinklers. ''This is where we shit ourselves as it came barrelling down the hill,'' he said, standing by a fence-line at the back of the cottages. ''It had wiped out my hay shed and it was tearing down on us.'' Miraculously, the fire stopped at the fence -- despite what Thompson estimated to be a 100 kmh wind. But then it crept around as fist-sized embers fell from the sky near several of the cottages. ''When that strainer-post erupted in flames, I hid behind one of the cottages with the hose running over my head.'' He could hear his brother-in-law calling his name. But, disoriented, he ran in the darkness, not knowing where he was till he tangled in the wires stretched across his small berry orchard. As the wind shifted, they regrouped around the house but then the fire threatened to take hold near a barbecue area -- where there was a big gas cylinder. But it was the implosion of a pine tree that nearly knocked Continued Page 4 T NO LOOKING BACK David Marr talks to the people whose lives will never be the same, but who feel they have no choice but to make the journey back home. Page 3 LOVE IN A HARSH LAND Malcolm Knox's essay examines a national mythology that teeters between fear of Australia's cruelty and joy in its natural beauty. Page 8 GOING TO EXTREMES Scientists say we're entering a period of uncertainty as extreme weather becomes more common, write Marian Wilkinson and Ben Cubby. Page 9 COMMANDER IN GRIEF Annabel Crabb on how Kevin Rudd bore the weight of the calamity and revealed extraordinary kindness and attention. Page 11 WE REMEMBER THEM The full list of the dead and missing known so far in Australia's greatest natural tragedy of modern times. Page 12 ISSN 0312-6315 9 770312 631063 “The tragedy of the Victorian bushfres brought out the best in our community - and the best in Australian journalism. From Sydney we sent two of the country’s fnest reporters, David Marr and Paul McGeough. They captured the raw human spirit – in both the survivors and those helping them to survive – and the gut-bleeding nightmare of the bushfres in those terrible days. Working with Marr and McGeough were many of the country’s greatest photo-journalists. Our front page image by Justin McManus of a shrouded dead body instantly moved and confronted people: in the stark contrast of a white sheet against a blackened forest, it reminded readers of the personal and the profound. Here was one life, taken too early. Here, too, was a national tragedy told in one frame. A remarkable achievement - and one that made a powerful page one.” SYDNEY MORNING HERALD EDITOR PETER FRAy 2009 14/15 FEBRUARy EDITORS’ CHOICE THE TRAgEDy OF THE vICTORIAN BUSHFIRES BROUgHT OUT THE BEST IN OUR COMMUNITy - AND THE BEST IN AUSTRALIAN jOURNALISM” “ Peter Fray Editor, Sydney Morning Herald 12 PANPA 2010 Year Book
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