A decade since bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people, residents share their efforts to rebuild their lives.
Christine Adams is reflecting on her story of survival.
“We got a phone call late in the afternoon from a friend asking whether or not we had seen the smoke,” she tells SBS News.
“We went outside and had a look, and that was the moment of ‘we’re in trouble here’, it was nothing like I’d ever seen before.”
She and husband Ken ran a bed and breakfast in Marysville, a small town in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, until the Black Saturday bushfires swept through the state on 7 February 2009.
Their priority was to get their guests out, then themselves.
They made their way to nearby Alexandra with their two dogs and cat, and waited along with other locals for what to do next.
News began to filter through that their entire town had been destroyed.
“It’s very surreal, you don’t know how to react … you get told that your home has disappeared, you get told that all the homes have disappeared, that friends have died.”
“It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and you just don’t know how to keep moving forward.”
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and you just don’t know how to keep moving forward.
- Christine Adams, Marysville resident
As many as 400 fires were recorded across Victoria on Black Saturday, causing 173 direct fatalities. Another seven people later died from their injuries.
More than 2,000 homes were destroyed, leaving many residents with nowhere to live.
“A few days later we were watching television … my husband and I looked at each other and said ‘oh my god those poor buggers, look at what they’re going through’ and someone turned around and said to me ‘but that’s your place’,” said Ms Adams.
The fires had destroyed everything the couple owned.
Once they finally got in to see where their business once stood, they were tempted to move away but decided instead to stay and buy the caravan park.
It too was all but decimated, but within a few months they had begun rebuilding it.
“It was at least five years before we started to say ‘are we happy with here?’ It took a long long time, it’s a tough gig to try to rebuild something,” Ms Adams said.
The couple struggled and came close to selling the new business, but their love of the town and its sense of community kept them going.
“We love Marysville, we are part of it we’ve been part of the growth of it and we want to be able to stay here.”
And ten years on they’re still running the caravan park.
For them, Thursday will be a day of quiet reflection with close friends.
“We don’t need an anniversary to remember what happened, we don’t need an anniversary to remember the friends we lost, that goes on all the time,” she said.
“We just keep on moving on through that.”
Love and loss
Lachlan Fraser was working as a GP in Marysville and lost his home and clinic in the fires.
He remembers seeing huge plumes of smoke that afternoon but didn’t realise how close the fire was to his home.
By about 6.30pm he knew he was in trouble.
“There were massive embers, choking smoke, the visibility was way down,” he told SBS News.
There were massive embers, choking smoke, the visibility was way down.
- Lachlan Fraser, Marysville resident
“Within minutes one neighbour’s house was razed to the ground, then the back neighbour’s place, the neighbour’s on the side went, and then a big fireball came off my neighbour’s house into my place.
“It was just over, so I took the dogs and I said to them ‘we’re going to survive this’.”
Dr Fraser made his way down to Gallipoli Oval where he and several others spent the night, hearing gas bottles exploding and watching trees burn.
He managed to get away with a few valuables but lost everything else. At least he was alive, he said.
After the fires he was keen to help get tourists to return to Marysville, so the keen runner organised a charity marathon. It led him to Cassandra, his future wife.
“I think for a lot of people actively involved in the fires it will be the single biggest event in their lives, bigger than births, deaths, marriages, but at least out of those I got more than one,” he said.
Not everyone decided to stay in Marysville with the memory of that day too raw.
Dr Fraser rebuilt his home and turned it into a guesthouse so he could remain connected to the community. He does the gardening at the property and still sees patients in the town.
“I would have been troubled if I had decided not to come back to Marysville, I was known here and helped out a lot with the recovery community meetings, and it was home,” he said.
Ahead of the 10th anniversary he said it was important to note the community’s resilience.
“It’s back to being a tourist town after those first few years and it’s one of the best places in Australia.”