Black Saturday Ash Wednesday

On February 16 1983, between 9.10pm and 9.20pm, the Victorian town of Cockatoo was removed from the earth. A fire had been burning lazily on the outskirts of town when 100km/h winds sent it eastward to wash over the community like a wave.

Firefighters were locked out by the wall of fire which periodically exploded when engulfing eucalypts. More than 100 children were led to the local kindergarten and ordered underneath wet towels. A skeleton crew clamoured to the roof with buckets and hoses. An hour later, the kindergarten was one of eight buildings left standing. Across the road, the town hall twirled in a whirlwind of soot. 

But by the end of the week, after most houses were replaced with caravans and tents, the community remained. Sixty-five percent of those in town that day decided to rebuild and stay. They’d known the risk when they moved in. And they were willing to chance it again. That number has since dropped down to 5%. Many left town after 2009’s Black Saturday fires. The deadly front was contained 10km away from town which was close enough to bring back bad memories.

One of the more neglected elements of climate change, often forgotten in the face of a rising tide, is the fact that large swaths of the planet currently inhabited will be condemned to destruction through severe drought and heat. This is most often addressed by politicians’ “won’t someone think of the farmers!” rhetoric, but farmers aren’t the only ones on the frontline. Around 10% of Australians live in small towns, and current projections suggest that many of their communities could very well be rendered uninhabitable.

One of these communities is Cockatoo, my hometown, the town reborn from embers.

Cockatoo Ash Wednesday Black Saturday

The Ash Wednesday Bushfire Education Centre, set up in the refurbished kindergarten that hid the children that day, holds dozens of old photographs and news clippings as a testament to those who remained. Bird’s eye shots of people resetting the foundations on charred chunks of land. A young couple with bleached and feathered mullets smiling as they hoist the church sign back into place. Two attendants walk me through the days immediately following, explaining how the place I grew up was resurrected.

“There’s just something about this place. You know, my son hated it here as a kid, he was always complaining that there was nothing to do. When he turned 18, he headed up to Cairns. When he started his own family, they headed down to the Gold Coast. And then they moved back down here. He told me, it’s impossible to raise a family in that place, it’s hard enough living there on your own!”

“There’s not many people left who remember [though]. It was Black Saturday that drove them out. Something about it felt different. People didn’t feel like they could hold up against a fire like that.”

I remember that Saturday; the sky was gold through the smoke. I shouldn’t have been outside at that point, but had decided to take the “too late to leave” warning for Cockatoo literally. I stood on the nature strip and took in the horrible glow. 70kms away Marysville smouldered.

I ask if people talk about climate change, if they feel a rising threat. The other attendant speaks up with a stern voice.

“People in Cockatoo have noticed the changes in weather. I even set up some equipment behind the house, thought to measure the rain, and it’s clear we’re getting less. Not only that, but now it’s coming down in massive bursts when it does come. That means we’re going to have a much longer fire season and far less time to prepare through burn-offs.”

“I love this place. I just hope it’s always here for everyone to enjoy.”

Cockatoo bushfire threat map (Image: Cardinia Council/CFA)

The conditions leading up to Ash Wednesday were like biblical plagues. The town was partway through the heaviest drought on record and facing pressure systems with 100 km/h winds that could change direction in an instant. A week before the fire came, we had the Melbourne dust storm — an ominous warning that blotted out the sun.

Black Saturday came with similar conditions, a dry winter with freak air patterns that resulted in searing blasts of hot air into an environment already edging on ignition point. But these were no longer freak conditions for February. The climate had changed since 1983. Even without the technical knowledge, locals can tell you it feels hotter, that this drought feels worse than last time, that the windows have started to rattle in their frames. People stayed after Ash Wednesday because they thought it was the worst of the worst. They left because Black Saturday showed that this was not the case. 

Just like the volunteers at the AWBEC, I hope the community of sunny people at the foot of Mt Dandenong remain. But with each rainless winter month, I look to the air and find it’s tinted a little more gold.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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