Words by Matthew Chipman
I grew up in the Dandenong Ranges, a string of idyllic villages laid across a green mountain range on the edge of suburban Melbourne. The tree fern lain creeks were my pool and the steep grassy slopes my slide. Still to this day, I marvel with a childlike wonder at the incredible beauty of the grand Mountain Ash Eucalyptus and the swirling clouds that blanket the streets. But to live and grow up amongst this beauty was not without its risks. One that was instilled into me was the danger of bushfires.
The engrained preparedness and communal fear of bushfires were ripe within the small tight knit community. With each summer, comes the fire season. There is a general tense energy as homeowners ensure that their sprinkler systems work and all valuables are packed away in boxes for an easy evacuation. This anxiety does not stem solely from the hypothetical rhetoric of local fire authorities, but also, perhaps more importantly, the clear and terror-stricken memory of those who lived through the destructive power of fire firsthand.
January 21, 1997, following repeated days of extreme heat, the temperature on the mountain was boiling into the 40s. The heat was melting the hills, and was only amplified by an exceptionally strong northerly wind that felt as if it came directly from the arid core of Australia. My parents were sitting at their home in Ferny Creek, trying to avoid the heat by resting in the lounge room with the curtains shut to keep out the baking sun. They sipped ice-cold water, avoiding any strenuous movement that could raise their body temperature. The phone rang, cutting through the heavy heat. My mum answered, and was greeted with my grandma’s concern of a fire in Mount Dandenong. Trying to ease her mother’s panic, she assured her that Mount Dandenong was on the other side of the mountain range and that they would be fine. However, the call was followed by my auntie communicating the same agitated warning about a fire, accompanied by the same assurance from Mum. It was the third call that was the wake-up call for my parents. It was from a friend who lived up the road.
“There is a fire at the back of our place! Call the fire brigade! We can’t get out!”
The fire wasn’t on the other side of the mountain. It was there and burning. My dad began to get changed into clothes to head up the road to help their friends, but he stopped as my mum opened the curtains, revealing the landscape. What they saw is scored into their minds to this day; fire burning above the crowns of the giant trees at the hilltop to the back of their property.
There were no mobile phones at this time, they lived too far from the fire station to hear the sirens, they had only been living in the house for three years. They had no warning and no plan.
At the sight of flames, my parents decided to leave. It was also at this time that the fire trucks were beginning to fill the streets. A queue of eleven trucks were lined up the road waiting to fill up at the fire hydrant opposite the front yard. My parents grabbed all that they could and got into their cars. Precious keepsakes, photos, their university degrees, some clothing, and the dogs. Before leaving, they made sure to turn the sprinklers on to douse the house and yard, preventing spot fires from falling embers.
At the end of the road sat a police car, manned by a single young policeman. Frightened himself, he told my parents to go to the Belgrave footy oval. Having never heard of a Belgrave oval, my dad asked where it was. To which the policeman shakily said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
The drive to escape the mountain felt long. My mum was hyperventilating the entire way down as the sky turned bright orange, then a deep red, accompanied by falling ash and gum tree leaves. They decided to go to my auntie’s house. Most of the roads were blocked, and the police guided them out. Their hearts were pounding, and as they got far enough away, all they could see was the huge plume of smoke rising from the town they called home.
They stayed at my aunt and uncle’s place for the afternoon and evening. During this time, they were continuously calling the landline to their house, checking, hoping it would connect and ring out. It always did.
When it was safe to drive back up the mountain, my dad and uncle went to check on the house, not having a clue of what they would find. Luckily, the house and yard were untouched. The fire had crawled its way to a mere five metres away from the entrance of the driveway. However, as they drove around the block, their relief was not shared by everyone.
My dad went to check on their friend’s place, worried. They were not the lucky ones. Their house was one of the many in Ferny Creek destroyed. My dad walked through the charred remains of the house they had visited many times. Their friend’s motorbike laid as a mess of molten metal in what was once the garage. However, in the driveway sat their two cars, still intact, filled with their belongings, prepared to escape. My parents did not know where their friends were, if they were safe or if they had survived.
Over the following days, my parents were continuously listening to the local radio station for regular updates regarding the return and recovery project. It was here that they learnt that 33 houses in total were destroyed. The fire had started at the base of the hill and had used the strong, hot, northerly winds to scream up the north-facing hill to reach Ferny Creek. This steep section, with its tendency to create a funnel for wind, was subsequently named the ‘Devil’s Chimney’. My parents also heard a familiar voice on the radio, describing the destruction of her house and that she was looking for her lost wedding ring. It was the first time my parents had heard anything from their friend since the fire. They were alive.
Sadly, the fire did take the life of a family. A mother, father and daughter that lived on our road. The daughter went to the same school that I would later attend. My family of three directly resembles theirs.
Fires are alive. They seemingly make choices. There would be one house, untouched, sitting calmly, and next, the space where another stood. All that would be left is the flattened, black remains of a family’s home.
I was born two years after the fire. The trees were still black for most of my childhood, and with it so would be the heart of the locals for many years to come.
My parents are natural storytellers, so I have heard the same stories told countless times to different people throughout my life. The story above was one of them. I do not have any memory of the fire, but I witnessed the scarring it left on the community, the environment, and my parents.
The community’s response was important and perhaps the one good thing to come of the fires. There were regular BBQs, environmental restoration and counselling services. The experiences were also turned into art, with exhibitions, story and poetry compilations and importantly for me, music. Throughout primary school, I would sing songs about the beauty of the environment, the destructive power of fires, and the community ‘rising like the phoenix out of the ashes’.
This intergenerational trauma has left me with two things. Firstly, an understanding of why community and art are necessary for processing trauma. I study music at university due to this understanding, and its emotional foundation in my life. Secondly, a fear of fire. I hate the colour red; I see rising smoke and worry, despite not experiencing the worst that fire can offer.
25 years on, as our country heats up, there have been and will be communities like ours that will have to go through experiences that will burn deep and scar worse. More lives will be lost if strong action is not taken to hasten the rise.
I want people to love this country, not fear it.