Words by Lara Shearer Art by Jessie Lui
It’s February 16th 1983, the day is Wednesday. The heat is dry and harsh in a small country town in Central Victoria. It was a seemingly normal school day for Caroline, 17. It is when her religion teacher is late to class that the students can’t bear the heat anymore, spilling outside onto the lawn. “We looked down towards the school oval and all I remember is just seeing massive flames, massive trees on fire…”
Now 2019, Caroline, my mother, remembers her experience of Ash Wednesday like it was yesterday. I listen and see her mind chronologically travelling through that day, “it was 42 or 43 degrees, I remember it was so hot that our school shoes were melting in the asphalt on the road, they were sinking in”.
Her family home was threatened, “I remember my mum getting my brother and I in the car and saying we’re to quickly dash home put everything we want into a garbage bag, then we’re going to leave. We don’t know whether our house was going to be safe.” They didn’t return home for three days. Mum came out of Ash Wednesday physically unscathed, but at 17 years old it’s not something you’re ever going to forget.
She recalls the way she felt on that day and those following–scared, uncertain, and left wondering why. Driving through her hometown, it was like it was alien. “I remember the sounds, the crackling and the roaring and just thinking… what’s going on here, where’s it come from and what kind of impact is this going to have on all of us?”
Almost 30 years later, she endured a similar, albeit more traumatic, nightmare in Marysville, where she planned on having a fun weekend away with her husband and friends. They were some of the last to drive through Marysville before the roads were closed off, on the day that became known as Black Saturday.
“No one else heard that roar, but because some distant part of my memory remembered what that sound was, it terrified me…” Mum holds back tears as she takes me through this day. Her memories are visceral and haunting, but also a story of triumph against the unrelenting power of nature.
“After I’d warned everyone and they said to calm down, I started seeing the flames licking at the top of the mountain…I’ve really blocked that out of my mind.”
In the late afternoon, they had lost power, lost reception, changed into long sleeves and pants to protect their skin. When they knew no help was coming because no one could get to them, it was all a matter of survival. “I was absolutely diabolically thinking we were going to die, and thinking ‘oh my god I can’t leave my kids’, that’s all I cared about”.
I have a hard time hearing in such detail about the near-miss mum, my stepdad, and close family friends actually faced that day. I was only 11 at the time and when they still had reception, mum called my siblings and I to say goodbye, because they were sure that they wouldn’t make it home.
“What I can remember is us standing together and looking around as far as the eye could see. There was fire, we were completely surrounded by fire, it was like if we get out of this, it will be a miracle”.
“By this time, we’re all in the dam, we have a piece of hose each in case we need to completely submerge ourselves…. And then there was a wind change. It got to this row of pine trees and we just watched it race towards us, then it stopped.”
“It stopped at us”.
Everything around them was gone. “The CFA rocked up and were like “you are the luckiest humans, there’s nothing left of Marysville”.
173 people lost their lives and an estimated one million wild and domesticated animals were killed on Black Saturday. My mum calls herself lucky, in several ways, but one being that she had a home and a family to come back to, completely separate from Marysville. Mum mourns for locals who “had nowhere to go, who lost absolutely everything, had just the shirt on their backs and had to sleep in a hall with 300 other people”.
Firefighters, first responders and residents have suffered from serious depression and PTSD and came out of that day as different people. Affected communities united as a collective to cope with their grief and suffering and to help one another attempt to move on, start from scratch and create new lives in a post-Black Saturday era.
Everybody deals with trauma differently, and many had to separate themselves from the tragedy in order to cope. Some rebuilt their homes almost straight away whereas others moved away. The community and the land are re-growing from this devastation, in the search for new light and new life.
My mum’s story is only one of thousands. A voice from one of the darkest days in Victoria’s past. She represents the sad truth of so many unspoken stories.