Many of you will have heard about the ferocious fires that have been devastating the state of Victoria over the last thirty-six hours. They come on the heels of a record-breaking heatwave, in the midst of a decade of drought that has seen the landscape here become drier, and drier, and drier. The media and the emergency services have been preparing people for several days for the extreme fire hazard that came to a climax yesterday. Yesterday saw temperatures in central Melbourne hit 46.4 degrees centigrade (115F), and just outside Melbourne, 48 (118F), with powerful gale-force winds, gusting up to 120kph (75mph). As one who loves extreme weather, this was the hottest I have experienced outside of Saharan Africa.
I didn’t go out photographing the fires yesterday. Frankly, I’m not that stupid- although I confess that the photojournalist in me was sorely tempted, particularly when driving home in the afternoon the highway I was driving down was engulfed in a plume of smoke from a fresh grassfire just erupting at the roadside. But the last thing the emergency service folk need is bystanders gawking, getting in the way, and possibly putting themselves at risk. Even bystanders with lots of expensive camera gear.
The weather was scary. The heat made your eyeballs shrivel back in your head. You could see great clouds of dust and smoke blowing overhead. The wind was animal in nature, gusting wildlybackwards and forwards, bending the crowns of the eucalyptus trees and swirling debris down streets. Around two in the afternoon, when the day was at its most intense, I found myself on a sidewalk in a normally-bustling suburban commercial centre. The heat battered down from above and radiated back up from the street, making me wither. The wind was tearing at my clothes and burning my eyes. It was the sort of weather you don’t seem to sweat in- any perspiration is evaporated straight off the body before it can wet your skin. If you’re out long enough, you’ll find little salt deposits left behind on your clothing.
About two weeks ago I was out for a drive with my camera about ten minutes from my parent’s place in south-eastern Melbourne. I had noticed a plume of smoke and had swung past to investigate it. It was another fiercely hot day- we’ve had a few this summer- and I found myself in a queue of stalled traffic. Up ahead, police were directing traffic. Through the windshield I could see the smoke rising. Flames were shooting up into the sky. I snapped off a couple of shots through the windshield.
I parked my car some distance away and walked over. There were crowds of people standing around watching the smoke plume above a residential neighbourhood. I kept my distance and watched for a few minutes, conflicted over the desire to get a closer look and the desire not to get in the way- or worse, put myself at risk. There was a thick stand of trees running down the edge of this neighbourhood, and a wide access track along which people were still moving fairly freely. There was no sign of emergency workers, so I eventually decided I’d get a little closer. Five or six choppers were circling overhead by this time, and a Huey was doing water-bombing runs. I edged forward, but was very mindful of the bush to the side of me, and the fact that fire runs a lot quicker than I do.
I didn’t get too far. Quite frankly, aside from being very concious of not disrupting any emergency work, the bushland made me nervous. Although I could locate the fire ahead of me by the plume of smoke, that didn’t mean it couldn’t change direction and leap through the scrubland very quickly, and I couldn’t see the front itself, except when the flames leapt especially high. The wind was gusting and the air was hot, and it was an unnerving feeling.
I stopped about halfway down this track. Ahead of me, the track rose to a crest, and the fire was on the other side of that. There was a group of people standing on the crest looking down onto the fire, and emergency workers in yellow vests with them. I figured as long as the emergency workers weren’t telling people to run, I was okay. I was a good two or three hundred yards back from that group, and as close as I wanted to get. In all honesty, I couldn’t believe that they were standing there- or that the emergency workers hadn’t told them to move back.
A teenage girl with a push-bike was coming down the track towards me from the crest. When she saw me with my camera taking shots of the swooping chopper she assumed I was with the press and we got chatting. She had been just below the ridge, not far from the fire front, and was evidently scared. She told me she’d been trying to tell her friend to come back down away from the fire, but her friend hadn’t listened, enjoying the excitement presumably. Something of the girl’s fear was rubbing off on me. Her voice was trembling a little. The flames were so powerful, and even at the distance at which I stood I could sense that they were something wild which none of us could predict or control. The girl with her bike was doubtless the smartest person out there that afternoon, and after another minute or two both of us turned and headed back to the main road. I was thoroughly humbled by the experience. It was as close to a bushfire as I’d ever gotten, and certainly as close as I’d ever hope to be in the future. Halfway back to the road, and we saw that the yellow vests were getting people to evacuate.
In the event, this fire burned through a few hectares of bushland and damaged one house. Nobody was hurt. As I write this passage, it’s midnight on the 8th of February. Since midday yesterday, bushfires around Melbourne and parts of country Victoria have claimed 84 lives, with more bodies expected to be found as emergency workers comb through wreckage. More than 650 homes have so far been lost, and at least a dozen big fires are still burning out of control. The picturesque town of Marysville, a place I have visited on a number of occasions (as have many Melbournians) and always enjoyed, has been razed to the ground. Several other towns have equally been devastated, some with extensive loss of life. The fires are not out, and already they are being billed as the worst in this country’s history.
Getting close to the relatively small fire-front that burned outside of Seaford two weeks ago gave me just enough of a sense of the fire’s ferocity to be awed by what we’re seeing out in the bush this weekend. I take my hat off to the emergency workers who are fighting the blazes, and my heart goes out to those who have lost homes, friends and loved ones. My house and my family are safe, but there are many people even this evening whose future hangs in the balance.
1-3: A CFA Huey on a bombing run.
4: View of the fire plume from Oliver’s Hill, Frankston. I took this shot and didn’t realise until later that the fire plume was in it. Oliver’s Hill is one of my favourite viewpoints in all of Melbourne- it invariably gives fantastic views of the bay. The plume is visible starting behind and just to the right of the tall building on the right hand side of the shot.
5: Flames visible above the suburbs, just outside Seaford.
6-7: Smoke above bushland and houses.
8: Onlookers gather just beyond the fire-front.
9: The chopper’s water-bombing run shows just how close they’re standing to the flames.
10: Farmland a couple of minutes outside of Marysville, taken in 2004.
Note: All photos taken with Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 24-105 f/2.8 L, except final photograph, taken with a Canon T-70 on 35mm slide film.