(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Thirty years ago Australia suffered one of its worst natural disasters when bushfires swept across Victoria and South Australia.
Wednesday, February the 16th, 1983 became known as Ash Wednesday, a day when 75 people lost their lives and more than 3000 homes were reduced to ashes.
Eight days before the fatal bushfires, Melbourne went dark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
On a blistering hot summer day during one the worst droughts in Australia’s history, fierce winds stripped about 50 thousand tonnes of topsoil from Victoria’s Mallee and created a huge dust cloud that made it all the way to the city.
“The winds lifted what topsoil was remaining on the land into the air and carried it hundreds of kilometres into the city. For the farmers yet another heartache and for the people of Melbourne a graphic example of a drought many describe as the worst in living memory. Richard Willis, Eyewitness News. (Newsreader) It’s estimated that the storm dumped one thousand tonnes of dust on Melbourne.”
Eight days later firefighters in South Australia and Victoria faced similar conditions.
Temperatures in the 40s, intense winds and parched earth.
More than one hundred fires swept across the two states that day blackening huge areas.
In South Australia, journalist Murray Nicoll covered the fires in the Adelaide Hills for what was then the city’s high-rating commercial talk station, 5DN.
On the day he was fulfilling two roles- volunteer firefighter and reporter.
In the pre-mobile phone era, Nicoll used an adapted walkie-talkie to file his reports.
“The sky is red and then white, it’s going crazy, the fire’s jumped 150 feet high straight over the top of Greenhill Road. I’m watching my house burn down, the roof is falling in, it’s in flames and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Murray Nicoll was lucky to survive Ash Wednesday and that broadcast saw him win his first Walkley award, the most prestigous for Australian journalism.
When Nicoll died in 2010, South Australia’s then Premier Mike Rann delivered a eulogy saying that even today the simple, stark clarity of the report by a journalist facing death is both chilling and compelling.
In Victoria, journalist David Turnbull was working for Ten News on Ash Wednesday.
He was given the task of covering the fires as they roared through the coastal towns of Angelesea and Lorne.
“By this stage it was late in the afternoon and we had literally one chance to fly past and I had to just file a report from what I saw and then turn around to Lonsdale (Point Lonsdale) where a links van would be to send the pictures and my report back to have a chance to get it on air. (Turnbull’s report from a helicopter) As we flew down the Ocean Road towards Lorne we came across smoke billowing thousands of metres into the air, the hills around the Pioneer Holiday Resort were absolutely ablaze, everywhere you look it seems the forest was alight. Road blocks further up the highway have kept traffic out of the area, we haven’t got close to the township itself as yet but if anybody’s trapped in there, God help them (fades) (Turnbull) It was basically, jump in the chopper, got down to Lorne, you’ve got one sweep past give us whatever you can, come back to Point Lonsdale and feed it out to get it to air, that was the scenario.”
David Turnbull says covering the Ash Wednesday fires saw him develop an appreciation for the work of Australia’s volunteer firefighters.
“It is a fight, you know, I mean they are firefighters, you know, and when, when flames get into an Aussie eucalypt forest, whipped up by you know strong winds and all that eucalyptus oil it is intense and it’s no place for the faint hearted. There were times when we were driving on roads and there were flames going over the top of the car, from crest of tree to crest of tree across the top. It’s not a place for the faint hearted and the courage of those guys and women is to be respected and I certainly respect it.”
After spending most of his journalistic career in Canberra covering federal politics, David Turnbull describes Ash Wednesday as one of his most memorable assignments.
“The intensity of the fires, how widespread they were, the impact that it had on individuals and on communities, the community spirit in terms of people trying to help each other and rallying together and then, you know, pick their lives up out of the ashes and carry on, all of those things will live with me forever and it’s not something that you forget.”
Up until Victoria’s Black Saturday fires of 2009 which killed 173 people, Ash Wednesday was the most deadly.
28 deaths in South Australia and 47 in Victoria.
Among the fatalities in Victoria were firefighters from the Country Fire Authority brigades at Panton Hill, Nar Nar Goon, Narre Warren and Wallacedale.
The Captain of the Panton Hill Fire Station is Colin Smith.
He was just 6 years old in February,1983.
“My main memory I guess is just the sadness around the town, being only 6 years old at the time I can’t really remember quite what happened but I remember the school, the principal came in the day after and told us all what happened, just remember the main feeling of sadness around the town.”
Captain Smith says the community decided to establish a memorial park at Panton Hill to remember those who perished.
Each year a free community concert is held around the anniversary to honour their memory.
“We had a couple of family members come down for the first concert and they were generally pretty happy with what we were doing with the concerts just trying to make everyone aware and just commemorate the day and the guys who gave their lives.”
And memorial services marking this 30th anniversary will be held in South Australia and Victoria.