Doomed Planet

Black Saturday: Inside the Inferno

Ten years ago today Victoria burned, an entire town was wiped off the map and 173 people perished. The subsequent Royal Commission established the disaster was the sum of a multitude of sins –not least inadequate fuel reduction that turned the state into a pyre awaiting only a spark. Here is the story of how five men and their esky survived that terrible afternoon

They make an incongruously well-matched duo, Frankie Gissara and his mate Brett Crosby, like a pair of novelty salt and pepper shakers. Frankie is dark and on the short side, a little round at the edges and tends to speak only when there is something worth saying. Brett is tall, fair, lean and when he gets excited, which is often, the words tumble out in a rush. Up in the bushfire commentary box that was the roof of Frankie’s home on Old Callignee Road, it was Brett who was doing most of the play-by-play for the three blokes on the ground. The main smoke plume was still a long way off, six kilometres at least, he called down, and not likely to head their way any time soon. Could someone toss up a couple more beers?

Five friends, three eskies, two slabs, one house and quite the most amazing spectacle anyone had seen in a long time. The fire set by an arsonist in a pine plantation outside Churchill five hours earlier was streaming with the north wind over the distant ridges, and the way those gusts were flinging burning debris way out in front of the main blaze explained why it was setting such a cracking pace.

The embers were sparking more fires for the front to pursue and swallow whole, like a cat letting a mouse escape so it could pounce again.

Brett passed all this along to the trio gathered around the eskies and Frankie endorsed the updates with a nod. Given the way things were going, he wondered if all that afternoon’s work preparing the home’s defences had been needed. As for sending his wife and two kids into Traralgon to get them out of harm’s way, well, you couldn’t fault a man for thinking of his family’s safety. His mate Paul Andreou was proud as punch of the cheese cubes and dips he had whipped up in the kitchen, but Stephanie would have done a better spread. Maybe it would be worth firing up the old red barbie and dragging some snags and chops out of the fridge. It was past 6pm and, after all the work and quite a few beers, some solid food would go down nicely – no disrespect intended for Paul and his bowls of dip, of course.

Frankie noticed it first, the way the wind went wobbly and then died altogether for just a second or two. Then there was a rippling he could see bending the treetops in the distance, but from a new direction, the south-east this time. The smoke showed it, too. Where it had been a thick cord of grey and black strands streaming ahead of the front, it was now being rewoven into a murky blanket that covered the countryside as far as he could see. Brett called down the latest moves, Frankie nodded his endorsement, and the trio by the esky raised their cans in salute. The new wind was a cool one and, after the sweatbox of an afternoon, they were happy to toast anything that knocked a couple of degrees off the thermometer.

Brett is locally famous – perhaps infamous is the better word – for getting from Traralgon to Licola in record-setting time aboard his bright yellow Kawasaki Z1000. It had been a mad dash done for no better reason than the adrenaline rush, and even though the bike had been sold – a casualty of his wife’s insistence that either it went or she did – the tall bloke on the roof had not lost his rider’s intuition for danger ahead. One slip, one unnoticed dusting of loose dirt on a curve, and the ambos would have had to scrape something that looked like one of Paul’s beetroot dips out of his riding leathers. This time, though, the sixth sense had gone walkabout. As he saw it at the time, the wind change would turn the fires in a fresh direction, but he wasn’t too worried. He could catch the smell of smoke for the first time but, aside from the banter and the sound of cans being popped, the lower part of the ridge on which Frankie’s property sat was tranquillity itself.

One of the ground crew wandered away from the cool drinks and ambled towards the front gate. Nature was calling and there weren’t quite so many trees to block the view, so Colin Aylett was a man in no great hurry as he disappeared down the driveway.

The man who came belting up the drive was trying to scream above a howling roar that seemed to have risen from nowhere. The wide eyes, the way he was waving his hands – he looked like someone who had just stood on a snake. Brett and Frankie thought it was some sort of dopey joke, and so did the two men on the ground. Aylett, 38, had moved to the Latrobe Valley eight years earlier from Tasmania, and everyone knew they were a funny lot down there. Because of the sudden roaring wind, Colin couldn’t be heard until he was almost back at the esky.

“It’s coming! It’s coming this way, coming up the road,” he shrieked. “Big flames, coming now.”

Brett looked at Frankie and then everyone looked at Colin, who was yelling that it wasn’t a joke, that they had better get the fire pump started and brace for a fight.

Then a wall of trees erupted by the front fence and the radiant heat was terrible. Brett went to say something to Frankie, but the little bloke was already halfway down the ladder. Brett put down his can in a rush and made to follow him, but just as he reached the guttering and was swinging a leg onto one of the top rungs, the ladder vanished from beneath his feet. He reckons he jumped the three metres to the ground, but his mates recall the descent as more like a fall. However annoyed he was at Frankie for pulling the ladder away, there wasn’t time to get stuck into him. Everywhere he looked, things were burning, and almost worse than the heat was the noise.

“You have no idea what a big fire sounds like until you’re in one,” said Aylett. “If you stuck your head up a jet engine, it wouldn’t be as loud but twice as hot. And the shed, it was a raging inferno. You couldn’t even look at it without seeing red spots when you blinked.”

The water pump earned a big cheer when it was dragged out of the shed and consented to start at the very first pull. Now the bastard wouldn’t turn over for love, money, or fear of the kicks raining down on it. It did catch in the end, but not until the starting cord had been yanked so often and so hard that Frankie thought at one point that it had come off in his hand. Through the noise and the heat, the only one who seemed to be thinking straight was Brett, who had grabbed one of the two hoses and was trying to keep fire away from one side of the house.

Then something happened that no one who was there can entirely explain, although each man has his own theory. Out of nowhere, another thundering fire front hit them like a truck, possibly from a second direction, but there is no agreement on that point. It may be, and this seems the most likely explanation, that the initial impact was only a spot outbreak – a big one, but really no more than a skirmisher preceding the main assault, which had dallied in a pocket of heavily wooded state park before hitting the bottom of Frankie’s hill and gaining a second wind. As the heat and extreme convection generated maverick winds on the front’s edges, the second wave of fire had found an unburned staircase leading straight to the home’s front yard. The ‘guesstimate’ is that the forest hadn’t burned for more than 40 years; the certainty is that there was a mountain of fuel mounded beneath the trees.

What mattered was the house, a red cedar place, which was catching alight wherever the hot shrapnel touched it, even if the point of contact was in the middle of a wall. It didn’t need to find an edge to lick and gain a little purchase. When ember touched wood, wood burned. Frankie was hosing the fiery specks, but it was a losing battle. Just when he had cleared one wall of flaming grit, the verandah would catch fire again, and again, and then a bunch more times. Colin and the two others were keeping the pump running, which was a real headache because it was on the flaming verandah. Brett was out on the wing and insists that he was “holding his own”, but that didn’t last long. The next second all he was holding was a limp hose and a dry nozzle – like a cartoon ad for Viagra, he reckons.

“Give me water! Give me water!” He was screaming fit to kill. The pump trio exchanged glances and, by unspoken accord, walked shamefacedly in Brett’s direction, all of them bent double against the hail of scalding debris. Their mate has a bit of a reputation for flying off the handle, so it was safer to deliver the bad news as a delegation. Brett, sorry mate, but your hose has melted back near the pump, they told him. There would be no more water for him.

Less than a minute passed – perhaps only a few seconds – before Frankie’s drooped as well. This time no explanation was needed – it was as clear as the orange willy willy swirling 10 metres over the verandah. The pump was burning and its reservoir exploded. Then the fuel can went off with the concussion of an artillery shell.

“The red rain,” as Colin calls it, “was pelting harder than ever. You’ve never seen four blokes so scared.” Some mental arithmetic prompted a gale of jeers when he reviewed the day several months later.

“Five blokes – except I still thought we could get through it alive,” said Brett, magnanimously including himself in the legion of the scared. “All four of you were crapping yourselves. Lucky I was still thinking straight.”

More good-natured jeers followed that crack. If they had chosen to hide behind a stack of leaking jerry cans, it wouldn’t have been a worse spot than the one where the group sought refuge. An open-air walkway all but divided the front and rear of the home, it was the only handy place to shelter from the red rain. There was so much of it that Frankie reckons you need to have seen the original Star Wars to appreciate what those moments were like. “At the start of the movie, where the stars are all just these white streaks coming straight at your face, well, that was it.” Except all the stars were a flaming red and did terrible things to the eyes.

Brett’s temper was kicking into overdrive. He was taking the fire personally while simultaneously paying out on the biggest crew of simpletons he claimed ever to have come across. The pump should never have been put on the porch, he ranted, and why hadn’t he thought to get his hands on Frankie’s brand new chainsaw before the shed exploded? He was kicking himself for not cutting down the trees beside the house. At least he had the good grace to include himself in the ranks of dunces.

One thing any dill would know was that the five couldn’t stay put much longer. The front and rear of the house were burning inside and out, the roof was collapsing and flaming branches were dropping like mortar bombs beside them. Above their heads and far too close for comfort, questing tongues of flame were slashing out of the windows. Brett went to speak, but Paul beat him to it.

“Hear that?” he said, amazement in his tone. “Can you hear that thing?”

The others looked at the cabinetmaker as if he had gone bonkers. Of course, they could all hear it, and it wasn’t doing anything to dispel the unspoken conviction that they were victims of a great cosmic joke. From inside the kitchen came the chirruping shriek of a smoke alarm. Amid the flames’ thunder and the shouting in each other’s ears, it was the haw-haw-haw-haw cackle of a mocking laugh.

“At least now we know  it works,” said a Frankie, who insists it was a deadpan joke. To this day, the others aren’t so sure.

ON OLD CALLIGNEE ROAD life’s complexities were being burnt away before Frankie Gissara’s watering eyes. He and his four mates were huddled in a knot beside a burning house and all that really mattered was getting to somewhere else, which was a dubious proposition. Brett Crosby took the initiative by making a dash for the round and deep concrete water tank that stood about 15 metres from their refuge. He covered less than half the distance before being beaten back by the red, burning hail of debris.

“The crap coming at us just kept getting worse,” he said. “That first time I tried – bang! I’m whacked in the face by this burning lump the size of a cricket ball.” Half-blind and feeling as if his face, neck and hands were riddled with hot needles, he retreated to the relative safety of a burning house.

The others weren’t too sure the tank was their salvation. It was so close to the shed, they reckoned there was no point in sheltering behind it. They might be able to escape what the firestorm was throwing from the front, but that would mean being toasted from behind. And Paul Andreou harboured another reservation. A skilled cabinetmaker with a professional’s eye for measurements, he doubted that the tank’s lee side was large enough to shield them all. “Three or four of us would be able to get under reasonable cover,” he said, “but the fifth guy was going to be exposed.” Quietly, he was wondering if they could rotate, take it in turns to spend a few minutes being baked on the outside of the huddle. They would have to, he supposed, and just see how it worked. Wouldn’t be fair to let one bloke get more than his fair share of burns.

A few more agonising seconds passed, the smoke growing so thick that the tank was almost lost to sight. Again, it was Brett who was the catalyst, kicking, pushing, cursing his friends out into the open. They made it this time, stumbling and clinging to each other, burying their faces in each other’s backs, never really certain where they were going in the smoke. If they looked up, there was no trace of sky. All that could be seen was a sheet of fire from the trees by the front fence, which was being curled by the wind into a wave above their heads. Colin Aylett thoughts turned to surfing movies and those shots where riders skate through the tube as the wave collapses behind them.

Paul was right about the scant shelter, and they all knew it from the instant they reached the tank. There was room for a few to shelter by the base, but not all at once. Paul thought again about how they might make it work. Taking it in turns, that would have to be it. Then Frankie remembered something. “I think there is a manhole,” he screamed. “I think I saw one, anyway.”

Brett can’t recall how he found himself on top of the tank, much as that hell ride to Licola on his Z1000 came back only as memory’s snapshots, fixed and frozen in a wash of adrenaline. The adrenaline rush distorts things, something that the Royal Commission encountered often with survivors, whose estimates of time and sequence could be way out. A witness might say the fire came at 5pm, only to be told that, no, it was actually 90 minutes later. It might be that they reported spending an hour in a roadside culvert when it was only one-third as long. The tank is almost three metres high, and Brett concedes it is unlikely a standing jump would have put him on the lid. But somehow that is where he found himself, totally exposed to the red hail and running in circles around the edge like a mouse on a wedding cake. He figures he did at least 10 frantic circuits before his foot kicked a small wire loop, one of two thin handles for lifting the inspection cover, a concrete slab.

“Just as well he found it,” Colin said with a sly smile, “we had all run out of abuse to throw at him for taking so long.”

Brett lifted the five-centimetre slab as if it were a feather pillow. Three days later, when the mates returned to see what they could salvage from the ash, each took a turn at trying to budge the trapdoor. Not one of them could move it a millimetre, not even Brett, whose astonishment became all the greater when Frankie told him the trapdoor may even have been locked in place by a coat of sealant.The only one who didn’t look pleased when Brett threw down a hand and began hauling them up was Tony Fleischer, who let each of the others go first. Three of his mates dropped through the hole one by one, leaving him alone in the billowing firestorm with Paul, who took a second or two to understand what was happening.“Tony has a fear of dark, enclosed spaces, but he dropped in eventually, although I think I gave him a bit of a push,” said Paul, laughing that anyone might prefer being cooked in the open to surviving in the dark. Always the planner, Paul removed the mobile phone from his pocket and laid it on the tank’s lid before plunging into the chest-deep water.

One of the things you are not supposed to do is shelter from a bushfire in a water tank. The modern plastic tanks melt and rupture, which isn’t always a bad thing. When Strathewen’s CFA station caught alight earlier that same day, the flames carved a hole in the base of the tank and unleashed a torrent that saved the entire building. Old-fashioned galvanised iron tanks are worse – think of crayfish in a pot – and 45,000-litre concrete ones like Sam’s aren’t much better. Not too far away near Traralgon South, beef farmer Peter Olorenshaw and his son were in an almost identical predicament. Their house was raging and its tank, smaller than Frankie’s and only half-full, was the only shelter. Olorenshaw is glad they didn’t climb inside. The water was as “hot as a cup of tea” in minutes. .

Frankie’s tank made a better prospect, but only just. The walls were thick, at least five centimetres, and it contained a lot more water. Hot as the flames were, the shouted consensus was that it wouldn’t get worse than tepid. That was the good news. The bad, well, it was grim. Plastic pipes and fixtures on the roof and sides melted almost straightaway, allowing first smoke, then metre-long licks of flame to come lancing through the holes. Shirts came off and the openings were plugged, but that was no permanent remedy. those garments were no sooner exposed to the heat than they began to smoulder. Another wet shirt, laid over the open trapdoor, dried out even more quickly. The smoke was a choking pall, the tank a chorus of coughs.

Someone gasped that the mobile-phone towers might still be working and perhaps they could ring for help. A series of foul exclamations followed. Only Paul had shown the good sense to safeguard his phone before hitting the water – all the others had drowned in their owners’ pockets. Someone gave him a piggyback boost to reach beneath the sheltering shirt and feel about for it on the roof. The concrete seared his fingertips and, when they found the phone, it was too late. The bloody thing was melted plastic.

Later, much later, when the fear was gone and memories of the moment became invitations to rib each other about their performance under fire, it was Brett who wore bravado like a crown. “I was just relaxing in the dark, up to my neck in the water against the wall, wishing I’d thought to bring a beer in with me, listening to these four gabbling away like old moles. ‘Oh, what are we going to do about the smoke?’ ‘Jeez, this water is wet.’ Honestly, you’ve never heard such a bunch of sheilas.”

The others responded in kind, insisting that if Brett had been holding a beer he would have dropped it when the concrete started cracking. It sounded like a penny bunger or maybe a shotgun, and it didn’t stop. Nothing could be done about that except hope the tank would not split open. But the choking smoke, that required teamwork. For the next 90 minutes they took it in turns to stand on one another’s shoulders, stick heads through the manhole and fill their lungs with relatively clean air – if clean is the right word for what the wind was flinging at their sanctuary. Every head brought a fresh update.“That’s your car gone,” Frankie learned from Paul, whose own car was burning nicely the next time anyone looked. The house had fallen in on itself and the hill behind was roasting.

As for the shed, it was the first building to go up in flames and, an hour later, it was still raging. Two more cars exploded, and they knew they were cars because propane tanks and fuel cans made different sounds. The tanks went off with an explosive pop as the valves blew out, then an almighty roar as the boiling liquid became an orange geyser. The concussions made the tank’s walls shudder, but it survived despite the rifle-shot cracks of the concrete coming away in layers from the outside.

When the big propane bottle beside where the house once stood finally exploded, they figured the day had nothing worse to throw at them. What was left of the shed still burned, but there wasn’t enough heat left to trap them any longer in the tank. One by one, the first clambering on the others’ shoulders, the five emerged, the last from the water hauled up by his wrists. It was dark, they were soaked and the southerly change that brought the fire left them shivering in a field of coals.

Brett had something on his mind. He was hunting in the shadows, poking about near the spot where Paul had feared they would need to take turns getting third-degree burns. When he found it, his voice was a prayer of gratitude. “One left, boys. One coldie left,” he said, singing the praises of his old tin esky, which was scorched and brown but had kept the last precious bottle safe and sound.

They passed the bottle around, draining it swig for swig.

“It was,” Brett insists, “the best-tasting beer I’ve ever had, apart from the ones we had later back at my place.”

This is an edited excerpt of Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned. Published by Slattery Media it can be purchased here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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