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Remembering the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires

The Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 remain one of the most devastating emergency incidents in Australian history. A number of large bushfires across the state of Victoria caused devastation to communities and wildlife, with emergency services from across the country providing aid both during and after the event. Lives, houses, whole towns, and wildlife were lost in the tragedy, however, the strong Australian camaraderie, mateship and resilience never wavered.

Australia had been experiencing a near decades-long drought by February of 2009, a weather event that presents its own struggles to Australian communities. In the week leading up to the fires, Victoria, and particularly areas around Melbourne, had been experiencing an intense heatwave with temperatures reaching more than 40°C. This heatwave reached its peak on Saturday 7 February with the temperature reaching 46°C. This intense heat dried out the bush even further than the drought already had, with extreme winds inserting themselves into the mix with the danger only worsened.

Black Saturday Bushfires, Labertouche 7 February 2009 [Museum of Fire Collection]

The fires began at 11:47am with the winds bringing down powerlines in Kilmore East which ignited the first fire. This fire spread quickly with subsequent embers leaping out to create a number of spot fires as far as 20-40 kilometres away. By 3pm it has arrived at Mount Disappointment after burning through Wandong, then it moved towards Humevale and Kinglake. Numerous other communities were affected between 3:30pm and 7pm when it entered the Kinglake National Park towards Strathewen, St Andrews, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Chum Creek, Steels Creek, Arthurs Creek, Flowerdale, Broadford, Healesville and Toolangi.

Meanwhile, a fire began at 3pm in the Murrindindi State Forest and Black Range where it reached Narbethong at 4:20pm and Marysville at 6:45pm, where it then burnt through Buxton and Taggerty. On 8 February 2009, the Kilmore East and Murrindindi fires merged to form the Kinglake Fire Complex, with records of the flames reaching 30 metres in height. Other fires were occurring across the state including in Beechworth, Churchill, Horsham, Bunyip, Redesdale, Bendigo, Marysville, Narre Warren, and Upper Ferntree Gully. By the evening of February 8, a reported 400 individual fires were burning, and the first fatalities were tragically already being reported. It would take several more weeks for the human intervention, reduction of fuel loads, and a change in weather before the fire was finally extinguished.  

NASA satellite image of the bushfires [Museum of Fire Collection]

The loss

A glimpse of the devastation caused by the weeks-long battle can be seen in the numbers; the lives of 173 people were claimed in the Black Saturday Bushfires, 120 of which occurred in the Kinglake area. Two of these tragic losses included Arthurs Creek Country Fire Association (CFA) Volunteer Firefighter Joe Shepherd and ACT Firefighter David Balfour. Countless further injuries were also sustained by firefighters and civilians both. In addition to the human lives lost, The RSPCA estimated that more than one million animals both wild and domestic lost their lives, not counting those that were displaced and lost their habitats. More then 450,000 hectares of land were burnt with the CFA reporting that 3,500 buildings were destroyed including 2,000 houses.

The remains of a house in Glenburn [Museum of Fire Collection]

Assistance from around the country

The CFA had more than 19,000 volunteers involved, with further support being brought in from NSW and the ACT. This added an extra 4,161 individuals from the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), NSW Fire Brigades (NSWFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW), NSW Ambulance, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Many of those deployed to aid returned several times to Victoria over the course of the emergency. Personnel from NSWFB took part in firefighting and recovery operations, along with logistics, incident management, investigation, and research.

Continued assistance after the tragedy was provided by all organisations, notable seen by the RFS through their special bushfire appeal “The Coffee4KidsVictorian Children’s Bush Fire Appeal Fund”, starting with their own donation of $10,000. Further monetary assistance was provided by the NSWFB through a more than $64,000 donation to the “Red Cross Victorian Bushfire Appeal”, which upon closure had raised $379 million. Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments also reached those left bereaved, seriously injured, and homeless as a result of the fires. Examples of community resilience are seen in the numerous businesses who provided their services to the public, along with local families donating part of their land to be used for the rebuilding of the Middle Kinglake Public School.

NSWFB and CFA firefighters at a briefing in Glenburn [Museum of Fire Collection]

Recognising the lives lost and forever changed

In remembering the lives lost during the Black Saturday Bushfires tragedy, we take note of all those who participates in the emergency efforts. On 23 October 2011, the Victorian Bushfires 2009 were declared a nationally significant emergency resulting in the establishment of the National Emergency Medal recognised through the clasp “VIC FIRES 09”. This medal was awarded posthumously to the late ACT Firefighter David Balfour.

David Tree shares his water with an injured koala [Museum of Fire Collection]

In recognition of the work of all NSW firefighters who fought in the Black Saturday Bushfires a ‘Firefighter’ Rose Bush was planted in the Government House Gardens by Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Governor of NSW, stating “…in the last few months, we’ve seen the true definition of what a hero is in our emergency services” (Bushfire Bulletin Volume 31 2009). A memorial dubbed ‘Compassion in Adversity’ was also erected in Mirboo North, Victoria. The bronze sculpture demonstrates the courage and compassion of those who participated in emergency efforts, featuring a koala receiving a drink of water from a volunteer firefighter. The memorial is located near the epicentre of the Black Saturday Bushfires.

-Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team




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