Pete and I arrived in Marysville at 3pm on 6 February and went straight to our friends’ place (they were in Melbourne that weekend so we had the place to ourselves) where we spent a good ten minutes walking around in gobsmacked wonder. Their house was beautiful, tastefully furnished and superbly comfortable: four bedrooms, two living rooms, a huge kitchen, a billiard table, all kinds of good stuff in the pantry and lots of quirky decorative touches. We had a cup of tea and then walked into town — about a fifteen-minute walk — past Gallipoli Park, the primary school, the pool (but we’d forgotten our bathers) and the recommended patisserie. We poked around the shops, admired the huge old oaks lining the main road and bought some stuff at the Foodworks before heading back to the house.

9.30am, 7 February: We walked up Falls Rd to the falls themselves, a six-km round trip that was only just bearable in the increasing heat. The national park was spectacular, as were the falls. It was too hot to climb to the top but we planned to come back the next day and try in the predicted cooler weather. We came back to the house, where I took some photos to show everyone when boasting about our swanky weekend away. I opened a couple of birthday presents and felt one year older.

1.30pm: We headed to town in the car (lazy, but it was hot) to the patisserie, where we bought some homemade fudge, and to the bakery for bread. Nobody was out on the streets as it was forty-two degrees; the road was shimmering with heat as we went back to the house and had lunch.

3pm: I booked dinner for 7pm that evening at a place in town, went outside to check the weather and noted the wind was up but the heat was still oppressive. The sky behind the house, to the south, was filled with grey clouds that looked like ominous thunderclouds to me, and I was hopeful that a cool change would come.

4.15pm: I went outside and took a photo of the growing ominous thunderclouds, which had started to turn a weird shade of pinky-purple.

5.20pm: I was up to page 99 of an interesting manuscript when suddenly the fan that I’d trained on me died. Pete’s computer stopped abruptly. The power had failed, but given my recent experiences in Vietnam (where there were constant power failures), I felt relatively unfazed. I half-heartedly searched for candles, and found a torch and heaps of candles, but no matches. Pete suggested taking a drive so we could sit in the air-conditioned car, and I agreed, saying we could get some matches in town — just in case the power didn’t come back on.

5.40pm: As we walked to the car, the wind seemed even stronger and was making a hell of a noise. The sky behind the house had deepened in colour and was now a peculiar shade of magenta. As we drove into town, we noticed more activity than at lunchtime — there were more cars on the roads, stopping in odd places as the occupants conversed with other car occupants. There was debris on the road from the wind and it all seemed a bit weird. As we pulled up outside the Foodworks, which was closed despite being open until 6pm, Pete turned on the radio. It seemed there was a fire somewhere nearby.

We realised the Peril was on empty and so we went to the petrol station, a couple of doors from the Foodworks. But the power was still out and there was no way to get petrol. Luckily, there was a guy there in an SES uniform, so I got out of the car and went over to talk to him. Simultaneously, the restaurant called to cancel our booking “because of the fire”. The SES man told us both not to worry and that the fire looked like it wasn’t going to cause any dramas in Marysville. He advised us to return to the house and start our fire plan, keeping an eye and ear out for anything. He said if we needed to be evacuated we’d hear sirens and the SES or someone would come up the street to alert everyone.

This helped somewhat to quell the rising anxiety we were both feeling, although the radio did the opposite. 774 said Marysville could expect to come under direct attack from the fire but then there was no further information. I called our friend who owned the house and let her know the situation as we arrived back at the house. She urged me to leave if we had to, but didn’t seem overly worried, since there was nothing about Marysville on the radio or TV. As we went back to the house past Gallipoli Park we saw a few cars and people there, and I stupidly wondered what they were doing before realising that it was the community meeting point in case of fire.

6.05pm: We arrived back at the house and sat outside in the car, listening to the radio. Concerned by the lack of good information, I called my dad in Melbourne to ask if he could check the internet for anything about Marysville. I then called the bushfires information line, and feeling vaguely spooked by the weird atmosphere outside, went back into the house. It took me a while to get through to the info line, and when I did, the woman I spoke to was not much use. She couldn’t tell me anything about Marysville or whether we should be worried or not, and her grasp of Victorian geography seemed as crap as mine. Meanwhile, Pete was on the phone to Dad, who told us what we’d already heard on the radio — that Marysville could expect to come under direct attack.

Feeling increasingly panicked while on the phone to the info line, I started packing my bag, not really thinking that I would need to take it, but figuring it was better to have all my stuff ready to go than not. Finally the info line woman asked me if I could see smoke from where I was. “No”, I replied, as I headed to the back window to double-check. But there was now a disconcertingly close and enormous plume of grey smoke visible against the purple sky, coming from over the hill at the back of the house. I immediately hung up and Pete, who’d also seen the smoke, had a brainwave and said, “Let’s ask the neighbours what we should be doing.”

We ran down the driveway and could see the neighbours, an old couple across the road, with hoses on their house. Their dog was loping around looking utterly dazed. The bloke yelled at us across the roaring of the wind, “You should be doing this to your place! The fire’s two roads away on Kings Road!”

That did it. Pete and I ran back up the driveway and into the house, grabbed our bags and stuffed whatever we could see into them before getting the hell out in under a minute. I felt like I was forgetting something (and the feeling was correct) but Pete was already in the car and yelling at me to hurry (prudent advice). As I ran from the back door of the house to the car, I noticed the whole sky had become purple and grey and there were smouldering things (leaves? embers?) flying and dropping from the air. There was a roaring sound that seemed separate from the wind, but I barely had time to register all this before I slammed the passenger door behind me and Pete reversed out of the driveway at a speed we hadn’t though the Peril capable of.

6.40pm: We drove down Falls Rd, dodging the debris on the road, and arrived at Gallipoli Park, which now had about thirty or forty cars parked around it and a knot of people in the middle of the oval. About ten seconds after we arrived, a police car came in with sirens flashing and everyone started to move quickly towards their cars. I leapt out and spoke to a couple of people, who said that everyone was being evacuated to Alexandra. We had no idea where that was (as it turns out, about 30km away), but decided to follow. I called our friend in Melbourne again as we left town and tried to make light of the situation, saying I hoped we’d have a chance to go back and do the dishes. I’m not sure I completely believed that the house was in imminent, serious danger at that point (let alone the town), but I was feeling pretty terrified by the rapid change in the atmosphere, the sky, the sense of urgency and our empty petrol tank.

7.20pm: We arrived in Alexandra in a convoy of Marysville cars, having passed through Buxton where roads were blocked off. Our first priority was to get a full tank, but both petrol stations were closed because the power was down in Alex, too. One of the guys at the petrol station told us to try and find accommodation in town at the Shamrock, since he reckoned we’d be in Alex for the night. Neither of us were feeling like heading back to Marysville at that point, anyway, even if we’d been able to. We left the Peril on the main street and walked up to the Shamrock, where we got a room on the stifling, pitch-black second floor before going to the supermarket. The main street was full of people standing around in groups, talking, listening to radios, but nobody seemed to know anything. We went to the supermarket, which had lost all power too, and wandered around trying to think of something we could buy and eat for dinner.

8.05pm: We’d only been in the supermarket about fifteen minutes, but the change outside was vast. The wind must’ve changed direction and Alex was suddenly engulfed in gritty yellow smoke that obscured the sky. It stank and stung our eyes, and we went back to the Shamrock where we found the second floor fuller than we’d left it — a family had come from Taggerty, near Buxton, and another family had come from Marysville. Now it was stifling, dark and borderline hysterical upstairs, so we ate our canned tuna in the dark and decided to go downstairs to the bar.

8.40pm: The bar was almost as hot as upstairs, lit by candlelight and full of locals and refugees looking stressed. Pete and I decided we could break our teetotalling February and both had a beer from the esky full of ice behind the bar. The radio worked only intermittently and there were wild rumours circulating — Marysville was gone, Buxton pub had been destroyed — that couldn’t be confirmed. When the radio did work, there seemed to be nothing about Marysville, so I started texting Mum to see if she could find out anything more.

The family from Taggerty were down in the bar, too, trying to find out anything about the situation near their home. They ran a wildlife shelter for reptiles and birds, and although they’d released all the birds before they left, they’d had to leave most of the reptiles behind, including saltwater and freshwater crocs and death adders. In a box next to the bar they had their American boa constrictor, some sort of rare lizard and their gang gang cockatoo… and they’d brought their four-year-old son, as well (not in a box — running around the bar and asking when he could go home). They were amazingly cool about the situation and extremely pragmatic, but I still didn’t know what to say. We’d left behind a few sundry and replaceable items in someone’s holiday house, not everything we owned, or our own house.

11pm: The power came back on in Alexandra and I started to feel safer than I had since five o’clock in Marysville. Simultaneously, the radio started warning residents of Alex to prepare their fire plans and expect the town to come under ember attack. The manager of the Shamrock told us she’d wake us during the night if we needed to be evacuated, and the family from Taggerty offered us a seat in their car to evacuate if we didn’t mind sharing with the animals. We didn’t mind.

8.30am, 8 February: The general consensus was that Marysville was no more. Some people said there was one house standing, others said there were four, nobody knew where these figures were coming from. Mum texted me to say that about thirty people had spent the night on Gallipoli Park surrounded by ten tankers, and I was bloody glad we’d arrived at — and left — the oval when we did. The road to Marysville was closed and didn’t look like opening soon.

The power was still on in Alex and terrible stories were starting to filter in on the radio and the TV. Pete and I filled the ash-covered, smoke-stinking Peril up with petrol and then went to the cop shop to find out if we could leave for Melbourne. There were some very upset people there and we didn’t linger. The Hume Highway was due to open at 10am and we were advised to take the road from Alex to Yea. I’d heard Yea mentioned far too many times on the radio in conjunction with fire, but we trusted the cop knew what he was talking about and went back to the Shamrock to pack up and say goodbye to the family from Taggerty, who couldn’t go back yet as that road was still closed. They were almost positive their place had gone, since their property abutted the Cathedral Ranges national park and was south of the town proper.

10am: We left Alex with our lights on and drove through the yellow atmosphere and smoke, which hadn’t dispersed during the night. There were very few other cars on the road and we were feeling pretty damn nervous, but kept reassuring ourselves with the thought that the cop must’ve known what he was talking about. And he had. Gradually, the smoke cleared, and by the time we reached Seymour, about thirty kilometres from Yea, the sky was clear blue and people were out taking strolls with their dogs. We got onto the Hume and had a clear run through to Melbourne, although at the closed-off exits to Broadford and Kilmore, the landscape on either side of the highway was black and burnt, with scorched speed signs and buckled barriers on the side of the road. Trees were still smoking and rubberneckers had stopped their cars to look. We made it home in record time and went to have a cup of tea — before realising our teapot and tea were in Marysville.

Peter Fray

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