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  • When hope is not enough: Preparing for the next Black Saturday

When hope is not enough: Preparing for the next Black Saturday


The word February comes to us from the Latin phrase februarius mensis, or the month of purification; the Romans may have flogged the terminology from the Sabines. The putative root word for this month we find ourselves in fesro, meant ‘the smoking’ or ‘the burning’.

This notion of burnt offerings, or redemption through smoke, takes on a grim significance when we consider that this year marks 15 years since the trauma of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria.

From 7 Feb until 14 March 2009, the fires raged unchecked and sometimes unstoppable. Within those 26 days there are innumerable stories of fear and courage, loss and terror, hope and despair. Some 400 fires raced through 78 locations, taking 173 lives, injuring hundreds more, destroying more than 2020 homes and the entire township of Marysville.

‘I’ve seen the inside of hell,’ Marysville B&B proprietor Ian Pearson had told The Age. ‘It’s just flat ash. It’s like it was never there. If you’ve seen pictures of Hiroshima, that’s what it’s like.’

We view this living memory of horror in the context of a long history of bushfires. The continent of Australia has always known this devastation; our understanding is that Aboriginal nations mitigated the size and severity of such infernos by controlled burns in timely seasons.

The only record we have, in terms of certainty of the human cost of the bushfires, is that which has been chronicled since European colonisation. That record is signposted by the worst of these:


  • The 1851 Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria; it’s believed 12 people died and five million hectares (approximately a quarter of the state) went up in smoke.
  • The Gippsland fires in Victoria that culminated in Black Sunday, from 1 February to 10 March 1926; 60 people perished during the two-month conflagration. 
  • Black Friday bushfires (Victoria), 13–20 January 1939, which killed 71 people and burned 650 houses. 
  • Black Tuesday bushfires (Tasmania), on 7 Feb 1967, when 62 people died and some 1300 homes were destroyed.
  • The 1974–75 fires (NSW), which were estimated to have burnt 15 per cent of Australia.
  • Ash Wednesday (Victoria and South Australia), 16–18 Feb 1983, which killed 75 people and destroyed some 1900 homes.
  • The December 2006 bushfires, when almost 1.2 million hectares of private and public land were ablaze.
  • The aforementioned nightmare that was Black Saturday.
  • The 2019–20 bushfires that killed some 33 humans and an estimated three billion fellow creatures.



'We do well to live in hope, but we’d do better to listen to wiser voices and prepare accordingly. And hope that in the wake of any tragedy there will still be people to save and soothe those whose lives are forever changed.'


In theory, we learn from these disasters. Certainly, there was great attention in Victoria to the 67 recommendations from the Royal Commission following the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Numerous areas of harm reduction and safety were addressed.

Yet we have short-term memories and scant desire to change our ways. That Royal Commission was one of more than 50 inquiries into managing bushfires that have been held in south-eastern Australian since 1939.

Certainly, fire-fighting experts continued to be ignored in the lead-up to the 2019–2020 fires. Whether you blame it on ideological aversion to climate change or realpolitik, it shows that any learning from fire’s miseries on the part of national leadership is yet to be seen in policy or preventative measures. No Australian is likely to ever forget the decision of the then prime minister to pop over to Hawaii for a getaway.

In the absence of any genuine changes in the large-scale approach, we can take some small comfort in the generosity and compassion of those who stand in harm’s way: first responders to these crises, including firefighters, SES, ambulance, forestry and other Emergency Services workers, and those who care for the survivors in burnt communities.

In 2009, I vividly remember driving with Salvo chaplain Arthur Ford up the road to Kinglake, past burnt-out cars where many people had died trying to flee. The memory will always stay with me.

As for Arthur’s traumatic memories — the smell of burning flesh, of seemingly endless hours comforting firefighters, police and military personnel who found people’s remains — those memories will stay with him.

Arthur recalled one police officer, a parent, who found 16 bodies: ‘he was emotionally disturbed. It will have an effect on him for the rest of his life, just like the rest of us.’

Arthur shared with me that, after several days on duty, he was ordered to go home and rest. ‘I was very emotional, trying to comprehend it all,’ he said. ‘I had a shower, and as I was getting into clean clothes I burst into tears, because of the hundreds of people … who have nothing.’

That reality of loss is likely to be repeated ad infinitum. That bleak prospect is tragically reinforced by the decades-long warnings of climatologists and scientists. 

It is a human characteristic to look for meaning in grief; sifting through the debris to find some positives from among the ashes of our pain. To sit with survivors and marvel at their tenacity and ability to endure.

Beyond the restructuring reviews, the policy debates and Royal Commissions, beyond people’s decisions to rebuild in heavily wooded locales, come our bigger challenges: to work through people’s continuing trauma, fears and grief; to listen to and act upon the advice of experts; to live in balance with the land; to plan and act in such a way that we can escape when the world burns.

So far in 2024, thank God, we have avoided the large-scale carnage of the fires of recent memory: Black Saturday and of 2019–2020. It is perhaps due more to good luck than good management. 

As to the balance of the year? The remainder of the decade?

We do well to live in hope, but we’d do better to listen to wiser voices and prepare accordingly. And hope that in the wake of any tragedy there will still be people to save and soothe those whose lives are forever changed.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Home owners use caravan to stay at their property on the 3 month anniversary of 'Black Saturday', Australia's highest ever loss of life from a bushfire, on May 7, 2009 in Marysville, Australia. As many as 400 fires were recorded on 7 February, later dubbed 'Black Saturday'. The fires resulted in 173 confirmed deaths, and over 2000 homes destroyed, with entire towns badly damaged and some almost completely destroyed. (Lucas Dawson/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Bushfires, Black Saturday, Climate Change, February



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