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My Experience of Black Saturday

Posted by David Laity on
My Experience of Black Saturday

Since its inception, Goodwill Wine has donated over half a million dollars back to charity. And while I have talked a lot about the generosity I received following the Black Saturday bushfires and how that generosity created Goodwill Wine, I have never told the story of what actually happened to me on that day - and the subsequent weeks that followed. For a very long while I couldn’t.

Thirteen years down the track it now feels like a distant memory and like all distant memories the events have begun to get fuzzy around the edges.

A little while ago I sat down to try and write what happened in an effort to keep it clear in my mind. Time and trauma do strange things to the memory and the biggest issues I found when trying to recount these events was remembering exactly what happened, and when.

The act of writing this has sparked new memories and I’m sure I will be adding to this account as time goes on. It is a recollection from an incredibly stressful period in my life that I now feel far enough away from to share.

This is my account of what happened to me on the 9th February 2009 'Black Saturday'.

For a year my partner and I had been renting a tiny cottage perched high above the township of Chum Creek. Located between Kinglake and Marysville it would end up facing the wrath of three different fire fronts sweeping through one after the other.

The house was located deep in the forest and the only way to get to it was a steep driveway made up of a series of tight switchbacks weaving through the trees. It was so isolated that it was completely off the grid and when I first saw it I was attracted to its privacy, but I remember thinking that no-one could survive a bushfire if one ever came through.

We were living in a beautiful spot with sweeping views out through the canopies towards the bay. We planted fruit trees and built gardens that our chickens were free to roam through. All in all, life was pretty idylic and we were sad when the landlord told us they were planning on moving back.

We found a new home higher up the mountain. It was in the tiny hamlet of Toolangi, a quaint township sitting near the top of Mount St Leonard. Towering high above Healesville and surrounded by state forests and soaring mountain ashes, it is a stunning place worthy of the poetry of C J Dennis who had once called it home. We signed a lease and were due to move into our new house on the Monday after Black Saturday.

The weather forecast for the Saturday had been grim - high forty-degree temperatures and massive winds. Being a city boy, I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant, but my partner who was one of the first women to join the Marysville CFA (Country Fire Authority) did, and so Saturday morning we took her dog up the mountain to our new house before heading into Melbourne in separate cars for respective hens and bucks parties. Our plan was to stay in Melbourne for the night and there is no doubt in my mind that those parties saved our lives.

Growing up in Queensland I thought I knew hot, but this Saturday was different. The air was bone dry, with a searing heat that made it difficult to breathe. The wind was ferocious too, with gusts above 100km an hour that could blow you off your feet. It was unlike anything I had experienced before.

At around 4pm that afternoon, I received a call from my partner’s sister telling me that our house was burning down. She lived with her husband and kids on a hill overlooking Healesville. They had a good vantage over the valley and mountains beyond and it would become our base over the coming weeks as we fought successive fires that threatened her home.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I called my partner who was already on her way back. We agreed to meet in Healesville and work out what to do from there. Our main concern was Daisy, the dog.

By the time I reached the outskirts of Melbourne, the air was thick with smoke and the roads were thick with cars. Access into Healesville had been blocked by police and everyone was being turned around. We decided to try the back roads and after several attempts we found a way into town as the sun began to set. It was an unforgettable sight. The surrounding hills were on fire and as darkness descended an incredible glow lit up the night sky.

With nowhere to go, we numbly watched the hills burning from the Healesville golf course. We understood that our house was gone and we all believed it was only a matter of time before my partner’s sister’s house burnt as well. For hours we watched the flashing blue and red lights of the fire trucks darting amongst the flames before settling down to a fitful sleep on the floor of an office in town.

There were two ways up the mountain and early the next morning we chanced our arm at the first blockade. We were turned back and so we tried the second blockade at the other end of town. It too was blocked. Unable to get up the mountain, I went to my Sunday shift at the local bottle shop. I don’t remember much about that day except for all of the people who came out from the pub to stare at the guy who’s house had burnt down.

Later that night we took another look at the roadblocks. The fire had moved down the mountain and was now visible through the trees. Even if the roadblock had been unmanned it was clear that it was far too dangerous to attempt the roads at night. Thankfully, my partner’s sister’s house had been saved by the fire crews and so we camped there for another restless night checking the surrounding forest for spot fires.

The following morning we set out again to break the police lines and rescue Daisy. News was beginning to trickle in about the devastation up in the hills and we were becoming fearful of what we would find. Miraculously, we caught the second blockade at a change of guard, and just like that, we slipped through.

'It was in Toolangi that we met the fire first-hand.'

The drive up the mountain was terrifying. Both sides of the winding road were on fire with little space to turn if we found a tree blocking our way. It was without a doubt the most irresponsible thing I have ever done.

Thinking that I could single-handedly take on the fire is something that still haunts me. I joined the CFA soon after Black Saturday and have fought quite a few campaigns since.

However it isn’t fire that unsettles me, it is turning up to defend a house and finding a hysterical man at the gate who has made the choice to stay.. Inside the house is his family and by the time we arrive the realisation has dawned on him that there is nothing he can do to save them when the fire hits.

We passed some fire trucks on our way up the mountain. The crews were on either side of the road actively fighting the fire. They screamed at us to turn back and rightly so.

I cannot explain the relief I felt when we finally reached the top and entered Toolangi. I knew it was a fool’s mission before we embarked on it, but I also knew my partner was going to go up that mountain with or without me.

We headed straight to our new house, hoping it was still there. The block the house was on was large and flat and had been planted out many years before with European plants. They were now well established trees; massive firs, elms and oaks, and the lawn was manicured to within an inch of its life.

It was a stunning botanic garden and as it turns out, very hard to set alight. The fire had leapt over the property destroying everything around it, but it had stopped at the edge of the manicured lawn (I expect with the help of some fire crews).

What was left was a green oasis in a sea of charcoal which would soon play host to every tiger snake within kilometres of us.

We found our new landlords putting out a fire in the back woodshed. They were as surprised to see us as we were them, and we asked if they had seen a dog. They said they hadn’t, and then as if on cue, Daisy emerged from under a bush. She had been there for two days watching the fire crews come and go. It must have been terrifying for her. We helped put out the shed fire and with nowhere else to go, we went back to our new landlord’s house.

It was there that we met the fire first-hand.

A CFA strike team had stationed itself up on the mountain. Made up of five trucks, they chose our new landlord’s home as their base. It was central to the town, surrounded by paddocks and there was a massive 120,000 litre concrete water tank next to their house. With big red fire trucks parked next to us it felt like the safest place we could be.

The fires from Marysville had begun to make their way towards us and the fire that had burnt our house down two day earlier was now coming back up the mountain. The fire that had struck Kinglake and leapt over our new home was still burning at the other end of town. We were surrounded by three fire fronts and it wasn’t long before embers began to fall. The fires had created their own weather systems and huge updrafts were dropping foot long burning sticks out of the sky.

The air looked like it was ablaze as the fire raced up the mountain side and we were starting to feel its heat.

We watched as the strike team leader drove his four wheel drive straight through a wire fence at the end of the paddock. His vehicle scattered some cows as he went to check on the progress of the impending fire front.

Up until this point I had been taking all of my cues off my partner. An experienced firefighter, she had been staying calm, but now I could see her getting edgy. The crew in the fire truck next to us were getting nervous too.

We could feel the heat intensify as the fire drew near and the thick black smoke began to roll in.

For a moment we were distracted as two farmers raced into the paddock, making a beeline for the broken fence. I had built fences in a previous life and I watched in amazement as these two men repaired their broken fence with a speed that was breathtaking. It was an Olympic effort and while I realise this moment may sound insignificant in light of the unfolding events, it will stand out as one of the most remarkable things I witnessed over the following month. With an enormous fire bearing down on them, these two farmers worked as one to make sure the cows were safe before racing off to protect their respective homes.

By now the air was thick with smoke and the sky had become black. The noise and the heat from the fire was incredible. Fuelled by the gasses coming off the trees, the flames seemed to reach kilometres into the sky. It didn’t seem possible and was something I couldn’t have dreamt of in my wildest nightmares.

The men in the fire truck began to panic, their professionalism going out the window as they yelled in their maydays to base. I remember my partner turning to me and telling me that she didn’t think we were going to get through this. My heart sank. We told each other that we loved each other and then we waited for the fire.

Suddenly, above the noise and chaos came the thump of the chopper blades. It was and still is the most wonderful noise I have ever heard, and I still get chills when I watch the big birds fly in over us on the fireground. Elvis was this ones’ name. It dumped its load of water and then raced off. Over the next fifteen minutes it made two more passes and then as luck would have it, the wind direction changed, sweeping the fire westward as it neared the top of the mountain. The Marysville fire behind us and the Kinglake fire also turned west and miraculously, Toolangi was saved.

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The drive out was ugly. Burnt cars littered the road, metal wrecks twisted from the intense heat.

We spent the night camped out in our new landlord’s house and the following morning were told we could join a police escort out. The road going down to Yarra Glen, referred to as 'the slide' by the locals, had been partially cleared and we were told we could leave in a convoy to go and get supplies. The convoy would then return two hours later. Once back, those that wanted to leave again in a third and final convoy, could.

We decided to go and fill up our car with supplies and then come back to drop what we had at the Toolangi hall, where an emergency centre was being set up. After dropping the supplies we would leave again in the final convoy to help my partner’s sister defend her home.

The fire had come down 'the slide' so intensely that the trees were bent as if being blown by the wind and the leaves were snap dried, burnt to a char but still clinging to the ends of the branches.

The forest was alight and would be for weeks to come. It was a scene of total devastation and for as far as the eye could see it looked like a bomb site.

That drive down to Yarra Glen holds one of my sadest memories from this time. Far down below us at the very bottom of a steep and densley treed gully was what looked like a bright blue MG convertible. With no path in, it was inconceivable as to how it could have gotten there and against the blackenend backdrop it looked new and untouched by flames. It didn't make any sense and I often think about the people who were in that car.

We arrived at the supermarket, made our purchases and began to fill our car. Beside the supermarket another emergency centre was being set up and we grabbed what we could from there as well. With the car full, we headed back up the mountain, dropped our supplies at the hall and then made our way back out.

For the next three and a half weeks we fought the fire. It was relentless work broken up by evacuations into Healesville when it all became too dangerous to stay. Often a CFA truck would come and join us as we worked together to protect the houses in the street.

Much our time was spent patrolling the bushland and digging rakho trails – metre wide trenches designed to remove combustible material from the fire’s path. In theory these clearings would be wide enough to slow a fires advance, giving you time to attack the flames.

In reality though, the fire had gone underground, into the roots, and any dry kindling placed onto the trails would begin to smoulder and eventually catch alight. It was back-breaking and most often defeating work.

The fire had travelled across nearly two hundred metres of water.

Late one night a fire truck turned up to help us defend one of the neighbour’s homes. The men in the truck were seasoned volunteers and between them there would have been over one hundred years of firefighting experience. I overheard them talking amongst themselves with a combination of childish excitement and awe.

They had watched the Marysville fire descend upon Maroondah Dam, a large expanse of water just outside of Healesville. As it burst from the forest it literally ignited the air above the water. Incredulous, they watched a fireball race across the water and explode into the trees on the other side. The fire had travelled across nearly two hundred metres of water without missing a beat.

Strangers who had lost their homes seemed to be drawn to each other in the streets. There was a look in our eyes that we recognised in one another and we quietly shared stories that we weren't yet ready tell anyone else. I remember running into a farmer who had lost his sheep but his goats were still alive. He had survived by jumping into his dam and from there he watched a ten foot high flame race across his paddocks. The grass was short and so it didn’t burn for very long but it was enough to set his sheep alight. The goats survived by getting down on the ground as low as they could with legs splayed out, and while they were singed, the fire passed over the top of them. He was devastated by the loss of his sheep and beside himself with how clever his goats were. I suppose at this point we were all grateful for small mercies.

The fire had taken most townships by surprise and Kinglake was no different. By the time people knew the fire was coming, it was already there. Many people chose to stay in their houses while many others ran. Up until then the accepted convention was to bunker down in your home. This made sense because while a fire front can easily reach a thousand degrees, it moves on quickly, leaving little to burn in its wake. Hiding in your house for the fifteen minutes it takes to become fully engulfed buys the time you need for outside to cool down to a survivable temperature. Due to the enormity of the Black Saturday fires, the outside temperature remained at a thousand degrees for up to an hour after the front had come through. There was simply nowhere safe to run to from a burning home.

I can’t imagine how terrifying this must have been, all of those people and animals squeezed into a little car, driving headlong into a massive fire-front.

I was told another story of survival that has stuck with me. It occurred on the same stretch of highway we had travelled down to get supplies. A resident of Kinglake was about to flee in his mustang when he thought to check in on his neighbour, a single woman with a couple of kids. They were still home and as he rushed them to his car the kids became concerned about the family pets. The man ran back inside their house and grabbing both the cat and the dog, piled them all into his car and took off.

The drive out was extremely dangerous. Visibility was almost zero and the road was already becoming blocked with cars that had failed to make it out. Terrible accidents were claiming lives before the main fire front had even hit.

The car raced down ‘the slide’, but no matter how fast it went the fire front kept up. The car was driving in a perpetual fire storm and couldn’t last much longer. Thinking quickly, the man reefed on the brakes and spun the car around to face the wall of flames. Slamming down on his accelerator, they charged back up the way they had come.

With a familiarity of the road only a local could have, the man estimated they were travelling at well over one hundred kilometres an hour when they smashed into the main blaze. For what must have felt like an eternity they drove through hell, before the car launched itself out of the other side of the front. With melted tyres and peeling paint, they pushed on to safety in Alexandria on the other side of the range.

For the next few weeks we prayed for rain as we continued to fight the fire. It was exhausting work broken up by trips to our old house to see if there was anything left to salvage. The fire had passed through three times by now and on every visit a little more had burnt or melted. It was truly devastating. The adrenalin that kept us going never stopped building and had begun to take its toll on our bodies. It would be many months before any of us could begin to relax and many years before the mental scars began to heal.

Chum Creek in various stages of destruction

The rain eventually came and four weeks after the fires had begun we were allowed to head back up the mountain and move into our new home. We were grateful to be alive and felt extremely lucky to have somewhere safe to live.

Sadly, our relationship didn't survive the ordeal and after a few years of living with my wines in a little warehouse in the Yarra Valley, I moved to the Macedon Ranges on the other side of Melbourne.

Visits back to the Yarra Valley have been very challenging but in light of the recent anniversary of the fires, I decided to take a drive down memory lane. I traced our journey up the mountain into Toolangi, and for the first time since the fires it felt ok.

I am grateful to that little township and the wonderful people there who took us in. I am grateful to all of the brave volunteer firefighters and to all the men and women who stepped up to help in any way they could, and I'm grateful for that wonderful home where Goodwill Wine was born.

Chances are you helped me begin again.

Thanks to the generosity of fellow Australians, I was given the chance to start again, and so I made it my mission to pay forward the help that I received.

I decided to begin a wine company and give back half of my profits.. and my customers got to choose who it went to.

My goal was simple: to reward the supporters of good causes with great wines, and I would do this by tapping into boutique parcels too small to be of interest to the large online wine companies.

While it is amazing the hands that life can deal us, it is even more amazing the goodwill that exists within us all.

I never imagined that ten years down the track this little business would have donated nearly half a million dollars to charity and the simple truth is, it only happened because people like you chose to help me when I needed it most. Thank you.

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  • Denise Williams on

    Thank you David. Your fire story is chilling, your follow up story of your wine business and it’s success is full of the goodwill that flows from humans touched by tragedy.
    It takes courage to share as you have, thank you 🙏

  • Tania J on

    Thank you for having the courage to share your story.
    So may people affected by those horrendous fires.
    So sorry that your relationship was a casualty.
    It takes a special person to be able to turn things around and to make something positive out of something so terrifying.

  • Sue-Ellen on

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Marcela Biguzas on

    Thank you for sharing your story, from such tragedy and devastation you managed to build your life and a wonderful business. I also live in a bush fie area, and every summer myself and all those around me are hyper vigilant to what may happen, (having already dodged a bullet in our area). Thank you again for sharing your experience.

  • Ramona Headifen on

    As sad and scary as it was, thanks for sharing your story, David. So many true heroes and immense courage and bravery. Helps me to remember there are many good people in this world.

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