Fire Stories:
- Blue Mountains 2013

Canberra 2003
Nelson Bay Tas 2016 
Ash Wednesday 1983

Fire Stories - Ash Wednesday Vic & SA 1983

'It was bedlam': The day 75 people died

abc5

Ash Wednesday is one of the worst bushfires in Australia's history with 75 people dying in Victoria and South Australia. (ABC Weather: Humyara Mahbub)

On February 16, 1983 there were about 180 fires burning across Victoria and South Australia.

Twenty-eight people died in SA and 47 people in Victoria lost their lives in what became known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Graham Simpson had been made a captain of the Cockatoo Fire Brigade, a volunteer brigade with Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA) in the Dandenong Ranges, just three months before the Ash Wednesday fires tore through his home town.

Earlier in the day the main fire truck had been sent to fight a fire at a nearby town, leaving just a small truck and six volunteer firefighters in Cockatoo, when a fire started at about 7:30pm.

"It burnt up the hill and then the wind change came through at 100-plus kilometres an hour," he says.

"There was no way we could stop it with a small truck.

"It was absolute bedlam here. People trying to get out on the night. I was trying to clear the traffic … I was at the intersection here, telling everyone to go to Gembrook.

"So they went up to the footy ground up there. Fortunately there was no fire up there."

While some people got out to the football ground, about 300 people with their pets took shelter in a childcare centre.

"The power's gone out, it's stinking hot, the wind is blowing through, the only light is from the flames. There were people on the roof … stamping [the fire] out.

"My wife and two small children were in there at the time. I was off fighting the fire. I didn't know where they were."

It took just 20 minutes for the fire to rage through Cockatoo, killing six people and destroying more than 300 buildings.

abc6

How we prepare and defend during bushfires has changed a lot since Ash Wednesday in 1983 when 75 people died. (ABC TV)

While the fire moved through the township in just minutes, Graham didn't get a rest for 43 hours, trying to protect people and property against the unstoppable flames.

When he was finally able to go home, Graham found his house was the only one left in his street.

"I wasn't there to save it [but] I was more prepared. I practise what I preach.

"Keep the gutters clean. Don't plant plants right up against the house. Stack the firewood on the back veranda."

Graham and his family stayed in Cockatoo after the fire. In 2018 a memorial designed by Graham was dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives that day.

 

Fire Stories:
- Blue Mountains 2013

Canberra 2003
Nelson Bay Tas 2016 
Ash Wednesday 1983

Fire Stories - Nelson Bay Tasmania 2016

'The smoke and ash was horrific'

abc4

Sue Popowski says the bush and animals around Nelson Bay are still recovering after bushfires went through in 2016. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The north-west coast of Tasmania is remote and rugged, where the gale-force winds of Roaring Forties hit the dunes that edge an area of wilderness known as the Tarkine.

There are just 13 fishing shacks in Nelson Bay, nestled between the beach and the Arthur-Pieman conservation area.

Sue and Ashley Popowski own one of those shacks, which was built by Ashley's parents in the 1950s. They were holidaying there on January 27, 2016.

"[It] was really, really dry," Sue says.

"There was a fire out in the distance … and the wind was coming this way. We thought 'Oh, we're in trouble here'."

Sue and Ashley packed their cars with the things Sue knew couldn't be replaced — photos and paintings. They drove the cars to the beach, left them there and returned to the shack.

"We chose to stay," she says.

"We had wet towels, we had goggles and glasses to put over our faces. Ashley and I were quite lucky that we had fire protection."

While they felt prepared, they got little sleep that night. At 4am their neighbour appeared and said "It's here".

"We doused down the shed at the back, the pump shed which is all timber and also the decking … we'd put everything away … thinking 'Well, when it does come, we'll just shut all the doors and we'll go'."

As the sun began to rise, Sue and Ashley headed for the beach.

"We could see the flames coming over the back and we thought 'It's time'."

They met the other shack owners down at the beach where they sheltered from the falling ash and embers just waiting to see what would happen.

"All I can remember is that it was really, really dark but it had this massive white glow in the middle, and then oranges and reds. It was just a mass of colour.

"The smoke and the ashes were just horrific."

Sue says they heard a number of explosions and thought the shacks must have been going up in flames.

A few hours later, the smoke cleared and they felt safe enough to go back and see what had happened.

All of the shacks were still standing. The grass was gone, firewood stacks were alight and exteriors were damaged, but no-one lost their shack that day.

"It's a very close little community … we were going to each shack and mopping up, pulling wood heaps apart so that we could save some wood.

"It was a bit too close. We were safe but our heritage wasn't.

"We still have not got the amount of animals that we used to have before the fires. We see the odd wombat or the odd wallaby.

"But it was such a harsh burn that there's no grass. It's just weeds and rushes. Trees are obviously still struggling."

 

Fire Stories:
- Blue Mountains 2013

Canberra 2003
Nelson Bay Tas 2016 
Ash Wednesday 1983

Fire Stories - Canberra ACT 2003

abc1

"It was a whole-body experience. You've got the smell of the smoke, the sight of it and then it gets dark … between the sound of the fire and the roar of the wind, it was just massive."

Rachel Marks says it's impossible to truly describe the experience of being near an out-of-control bushfire.

It's an experience no-one wants to go through and, if it happens to you, one you'll never forget.

We spoke with three people who've survived them — from a volunteer firefighter who lived through one of the country's worst ever fires, to shack owners who escaped by sheltering on a beach.

Here are their stories of surviving the extremes.

'It was pitch black at 4pm'

abc2

A personal experience with bushfire has effects that last long after the fire threat ends. (ABC Weather: Humyara Mahbub)

It's considered Canberra's worst natural disaster and it took almost everyone by surprise.

On January 18, 2003, four bushfires that had been burning in Brindabella mountains for more than a week combined and roared into Canberra's south-western suburbs, destroying 500 homes and claiming four lives.

Rachel Marks and her husband Adrian knew the fires were bad, but they never thought it would come near their home in Weston Creek.

It was when Rachel heard the emergency siren broadcast on the local ABC Radio station that she realised just how serious it was.

She and Adrian raced home to pack what they could to escape.

"I just grabbed that stuff and chucked it in the car," Rachel says.

"While we were still there, dithering, the power went out. It was pitch black — at four in the afternoon.

"We heard the Duffy service station blow up. We could hear gas bottles from barbecues blowing up.

"It was just a roar … there's this constant, almost threatening sound.

"It was a whole-body experience. You've got the smell of the smoke, the sight of it and then it gets dark … then it turns orange. It's really hot, it's really windy.

"It was my worst nightmare. I could see people with their garden hose, trying to put out their house."

abc3

Chauvel Circle in Chapman, Canberra in January 2003, after the firestorm swept into the suburb on January 18, 2003.(National Library Of Australia: Greg Power)

They eventually made it to Rachel's parents' house in the southern suburbs of Canberra, but still couldn't relax.

"I couldn't sleep that night. I was covered in fear sweat and every time I heard a car go past, I thought 'The ranger's come to tell us to evacuate. It's coming'. It was pretty horrific."

Rachel and Adrian were able to return to their home, which had survived, the next day.

"We were going past people's burnt houses. It felt surreal, like something you'd see in a movie.

"People walking around, dazed, wondering 'What the heck do we do now?'"     

While the fire didn't directly affect Rachel's house, it did affect her life.

She now lives in Victoria, not that far from another national park, and the smell of smoke and sound of helicopters on a hot day takes her straight back to that experience in Canberra.

"Even though it hadn't hit my house, it hit my community, and you pick up what people are feeling."

Prepare for an Emergency - Fire Stories

"With so many houses across Australia exposed to the bushland, the reality is the closer to the bush you live, the higher the risk."  Hazelbrook Fire Brigade.

Bushfire survivors share what it's like living through extreme weather

ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves

Updated 7 Feb 2019


Blue Mountains NSW 2013

Fire Stories - LIving with Risk

A moving and beautifully told documentary about the 2013 bushfires which devastated the Blue Mountains townships of Winmalee and Yellow Rock and recovery of the community afterwards.  


Reproduced with permission from the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute. 

'We thought we had a Plan - The family in this video experienced a bush fire in 2013.  It's from their experience that they have discussed and tailored a plan that suits the needs of their family.

 


Canberra ACT 2003  
(Extract from ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves)

'It was pitch black at 4pm'

abc2

A personal experience with bushfire has effects that last long after the fire threat ends.(ABC Weather: Humyara Mahbub)

It's considered Canberra's worst natural disaster and it took almost everyone by surprise.

On January 18, 2003, four bushfires that had been burning in Brindabella mountains for more than a week combined and roared into Canberra's south-western suburbs, destroying 500 homes and claiming four lives.

Rachel Marks and her husband Adrian knew the fires were bad, but they never thought it would come near their home in Weston Creek.

It was when Rachel heard the emergency siren broadcast on the local ABC Radio station that she realised just how serious it was.

She and Adrian raced home to pack what they could to escape.

"I just grabbed that stuff and chucked it in the car," Rachel says.

"While we were still there, dithering, the power went out. It was pitch black — at four in the afternoon.

"We heard the Duffy service station blow up. We could hear gas bottles from barbecues blowing up.

"It was just a roar … there's this constant, almost threatening sound.  Read more....


Nelson Bay Tasmania 2016
(Extract from ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves)

'The smoke and ash was horrific'

abc4

Sue Popowski says the bush and animals around Nelson Bay are still recovering after bushfires went through in 2016

Sue Popowski says the bush and animals around Nelson Bay are still recovering after bushfires went through in 2016.

The north-west coast of Tasmania is remote and rugged, where the gale-force winds of Roaring Forties hit the dunes that edge an area of wilderness known as the Tarkine.

There are just 13 fishing shacks in Nelson Bay, nestled between the beach and the Arthur-Pieman conservation area.

Sue and Ashley Popowski own one of those shacks, which was built by Ashley's parents in the 1950s. They were holidaying there on January 27, 2016.

"[It] was really, really dry," Sue says.

"There was a fire out in the distance … and the wind was coming this way. We thought 'Oh, we're in trouble here'."

Sue and Ashley packed their cars with the things Sue knew couldn't be replaced — photos and paintings. They drove the cars to the beach, left them there and returned to the shack.

"We chose to stay," she says.

"We had wet towels, we had goggles and glasses to put over our faces. Ashley and I were quite lucky that we had fire protection."

While they felt prepared, they got little sleep that night. At 4am their neighbour appeared and said "It's here".   Read more...


Ash Wednesday Vic & SA 1983 
(Extract from ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves)

'It was bedlam': The day 75 people died

abc5

Ash Wednesday is one of the worst bushfires in Australia's history with 75 people dying in Victoria and South Australia.

On February 16, 1983 there were about 180 fires burning across Victoria and South Australia.

Twenty-eight people died in SA and 47 people in Victoria lost their lives in what became known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Graham Simpson had been made a captain of the Cockatoo Fire Brigade, a volunteer brigade with Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA) in the Dandenong Ranges, just three months before the Ash Wednesday fires tore through his home town.

Earlier in the day the main fire truck had been sent to fight a fire at a nearby town, leaving just a small truck and six volunteer firefighters in Cockatoo, when a fire started at about 7:30pm.

"It burnt up the hill and then the wind change came through at 100-plus kilometres an hour," he says.

"There was no way we could stop it with a small truck.

"It was absolute bedlam here. People trying to get out on the night. I was trying to clear the traffic … I was at the intersection here, telling everyone to go to Gembrook.

"So they went up to the footy ground up there. Fortunately there was no fire up there."

While some people got out to the football ground, about 300 people with their pets took shelter in a childcare centre.

"The power's gone out, it's stinking hot, the wind is blowing through, the only light is from the flames. There were people on the roof … stamping [the fire] out.

"My wife and two small children were in there at the time. I was off fighting the fire. I didn't know where they were."   Read more...


 

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