Devastating Fires in Victoria, Australia

Bob Munro (R56-60)

Hallo everyone, and thank you all sincerely for your concern. I was relieved to see that (so far) no OF’s have been involved in the tragedy. Apologies for the delay in responding to your email, but I usually only go on line once a week.

Christina and I live in Montmorency which is an outer northern suburb, not that far from some of the fires (Kinglake, Pheasant Creek, Strathewen and St. Andrews) but fortunately fairly well built up so as to be relatively safe. Our townhouse is on a bit of a hill, and we can see across the townships of Eltham and Research to St. Andrews and Kinglake in the distance. Consequently Christina could see the orange glow in the sky on ‘Black Saturday’ night (Feb. 7th.), and of course all week we have seen the smoke in the valley. Kinglake (which was one of the worst hit areas) is a distance of about 25 klms from Montmorency in a straight line.

Sadly, the devastation is beyond normal comprehension, and to make matters worse, there is evidence that some of the fires were deliberately lit. Some folk have lost all family, their home, their car(s), their business and everything, escaping only from the fire with the clothes they were wearing – which would not have been much because Saturday was a VERY hot day with temperatures over 40 Celsius degrees (105 degrees Fahrenheit +).

I was about 350 klms away in the north east of the state camping near a place called Myrtleford, with some other of my motorcycling friends. The area we were in had no mobile ‘phone coverage and transistor radios were all but useless, so we had been ignorant of the devastation overtaking the state of Victoria. Just before midnight on Saturday night a few people noticed a glow in the sky, so after a quick dash down the road on the ‘bike to get a better view, we saw a big fire apparently heading our way across the hills. We spoke to some other people camping by the river, not far from our own campsite, who told us of a big fire over the hills towards Beechworth with an 8 kilometre front and growing. The decision was made to head home and get out of the way of the emergency services.

So we (seven in our group) packed up our tents and gear, loaded the ‘bikes and left the area at about 1.30am Sunday morning. We rode towards the Hume Highway (the main Melbourne – Sydney highway), joining it at Glenrowan (site of the outlaw Ned Kelly’s last stand), and stopped at a McDonalds (about 2.15am) for a drink and a break. It was still very hot, and we were unsure of road closures etc. so it was a good place to get some information. What a shock to find out then that there were reported some 40 major fires all over the state, with 13 lives lost and several homes burnt. We were advised that the Hume was closed closer to Melbourne, but were also told that we would be able to get through. And so it proved to be the case. We had one diversion, but the main memory of what was a pretty wild ride, was of thick smoke along much of our route home, and very sore eyes too, as a result. Riding at night on a motorcycle is always a bit scary, since this is the time that the ‘furry critters’ come out to play (kangaroos, wallabies, emus, wombats and rabbits), and the added fear of the same critters running from a fire front. Luckily our little group only encountered (and missed) a couple of rabbits (rabbits are considered vermin in Australia as they are an introduced species). And none of these creatures have any road sense!

I finally arrived home just before 6 o’clock on Sunday morning. But later on Sunday morning the full horror of the fires started to be reported on the radio and of course on TV.

As I write now, 7.30pm Monday Feb. 16th, the death toll has been updated to 189 dead, and just shy of 2000 homes lost. There are 8 fires still not under control (although no homes are under direct threat), and over 5,000 people involved in trying to get those fires contained. This number includes our own CFA (Country Fire Authority) Volunteer firemen and women, plus people from New South Wales, New Zealand and California USA.

It is going to take a long time for some of the affected places to get back on their feet, since in several of them there is little, if anything left of some once pleasant little communities.

In this short narrative I have used the names of only a few of the affected towns in case any of you would like to see on a map some of the locations of this disaster. There were many more affected townships, not too far away, but close enough to be familiar to many Melburnians as places to go for a Sunday ride or drive.

Thanks again to all of you for your concern. And to Aubrey W. regarding his home at Redhill, if you are there and there is a fire warning may I say “Don’t wait – Evacuate”.

Mike Garnett (R53-55)

Hello Chris – many thanks for your concern. The fires are to the east of where I live and so far we have not been affected in the Romsey area. They are certainly the worst fires that I can recall since I came to Australia forty + years ago. I hope my fellow-OF’s are all OK, regards Mike.

John Bonner (G57-62)

Many thanks for your concern. Mercifully the nearest fire was about 50 miles away, but in common with so many others we know people who have lost everything. The worst side of human nature is apparent with arsonists being held responsible for at least 50% of the fires and now looters are scouring the remains!!! How low can you be?

Aubrey Whitear (G58-65)

Thanks for your concern, we are fine. Saturday was horrific – 46.4 degrees Celsius (about 115 Farenheit) with a very strong Northerly wind. Our fourth day of temperatures above forty in the last two weeks. Just to be outside was like standing it an oven. The firefighters had no hope as some fires moved several kilometers through eucalypt forest in no more than the same number of minutes. The four biggest fires in Victoria covered an area of around 200,000 hectares (imagine more than half of Essex completely burnt out) but there have been at least a dozen others and they are not all out yet and may not be for weeks. Probably more than 200 killed, possibly 300.

Some friends of ours, no more than an hour’s drive from Melbourne, had their farm burnt out, lost all their fences, pasture and hay as well as the garden but saved the farmhouse itself. As they now have no fences all they could do with their cattle was to send them to market. We were very worried about our house at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula which is in an area designated high fire danger but in view of the extreme weather we were too scared to be there. Luckily, there were no fires in the area this time but it has not rained at all this year, everything is very dry and we still have at least another two months of fire danger weather to come. We need a lot of rain or we could still be in a lot of trouble. Enjoy your snow!

Ed Henry (G61-66)

Thank you for your concern. We are Ok this time, although a friend almost lost their house which has been water damaged when the fire brigade hosed it down to stop it exploding. All the play equipment and garden was destroyed and the mess in the house is terrible.

I have just been to the medical clinic where my wife is practice manager and one of the doctors came in to her office while I was there to get the medical records of two brothers aged 22 and 23 who had lost their lives in the fires. The records are needed by the police for identification purposes. They are saying it could be up to a year before they can properly identify some of the bodies as they are so badly burnt.
It has been heart wrenching to see the devastation here every day on the news, and the lines have been so busy I have been unable to contact my Mum and sisters in UK other than by email.

The official death toll currently stands at 181, but we are being warned that once the fires die down and emergency services can gain access in to the areas there could be many more.

There is so much to be done to try and rebuild whole towns that have been virtually wiped out.
Here is a link to see photos that have been taken during the fires by people caught up in them.
May be the OF Society could consider making a donation to the Red Cross Appeal at for the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history?

[The Society would love to support the Red Cross in their work in Victoria, but unfortunately our constitution doesn’t permit donations of this type, as they are not to the benefit of the College or OFs]

Keith Dann (S48-50)

We are well away from the fires – the nearest was 50 km away and down wind. Once the wind changed that resulted in the major problems. Thanks for your thoughts, I gather the TV has been showing quite a bit. We could do with a bit of your snow though when my nephew rang from Ashford yesterday he said it was raining.

I have already sent Monday’s “The Age” to a friend in Belfast but if you were interested you could look at the on-line version What both it and the TV bring out is how lucky we are not to have been involved.


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