Aussie Loh Family
  Victoria's Bushfire 2009


Jeffay's Pressays                                                                           March 2009

Let me fill you in on what officially happened to us on Black Saturday, 7th February and the following weeks. The fire that eventually enveloped Marysville, started at the Murrundindi Mill around 3.30pm. We were in church, attending the 4pm service at that time and so did not know what was happening. We had left Marysville earlier, at noon, which was unusual for us. After the service, Rachelle received a call from the mother of one of her schoolmates who warned us of the impending fire and advised us not to go home. However, when I rang one of my ElKanah colleagues, he reported that there was no fire in Marysville, just lots of smoke. This was at 6pm. I did not realise that 10 minutes later, the entire staff of Elkanah were told to evacuate by the police and half an hour later, Marysville was razed to the ground. We decided to try to get home so we proceeded onto the highway but was stopped at Coldstream by the police. The fire there had cut the main highway to Marysville. We were advised by the police to try going via the back way through the mountain at Warburton. This was what we did. Soon we realised that we were the only vehicle heading towards the smoke whilst the main traffic was passing us on the way to Melbourne. It had started drizzling liquid dust by the time we reached the gravel part of the back road and we found an enormous tree blocking the road. There was no way around it and after informing the Emergency Services, I decided to turn back to Melbourne. There was another back road we could have tried but it was already 9pm by then and getting dark. We rang up a friend who welcomed us into his home and we stayed there for 2 days before our church, CityLife Knox, moved us into their halfway house. We stayed there for a week before moving to John and Janice Wakeford’s house, which was nearer my college. After a week there, I dropped Rachelle off at her schoolmate’s house in Alexandria so that she could go to school. Raphael and I remained at the Wakeford’s as I was starting my studies and the house we found at Eildon would not be ready for another week. We eventually moved into Eildon the following Friday and found ourselves under extreme fire threat on Tuesday! We decided against evacuating as there were over a thousand fire fighters defending the township and Praise the Lord, nothing eventuated. The fire is completely contained now.
Marysville has finally been opened for residents to return. We went back to our house to see if we could salvage anything. I found a tin box where I had placed all my foreign currencies, and though it was unopened, the paper currencies had been incinerated and only melted coins were found. Rachelle recovered three of our seven dwarfs and a bird bath in our backyard which incidentally had never looked so neat. No more tall grass or weeds.

Excerpts of the Bushfire at Marysville according to the Herald Sun and ABC news:

7 February

At least 14 people are dead and hundreds of houses destroyed by a wave of bushfires – some deliberately lit. Victoria is in a state of emergency as 10 major bushfires raged. All of the confirmed deaths were in rugged bushland, within 60km of Melbourne. Fire authorities are hopeful rain showers will slow down the raging bushfires which are ripping through hectares of bushland and destroying or damaging homes. The showers are welcome relief for more than 3000 firefighters who battled to save lives and homes in extreme temperatures across the state. Whole towns have been cut off and thousands of people left homeless with record temperatures and fierce winds sparking devastating infernos.

8 February

Virtually the entire township of Marysville in the Yarra Valley has been destroyed by the bushfires. According to fire authorities, residents were safely evacuated to the local sports ground, Gallipoli Park. Emergency response crews were having difficulty accessing the town due to fallen trees blocking roads, but ABC radio is reporting that people have now been evacuated in a convoy from Gallipoli Park to staging areas. The Federal Liberal member for McEwen, Fran Bailey, said she understood the entire town of Marysville had been destroyed. The State Emergency Service and the Red Cross are organising to deliver food and drinks to the residents and firefighters sheltering at the Gallipoli Park relief centre. The Marysville fire is burning in a northeasterly direction is now threatening the township of Taggerty, Rubicon, Alexandra and Eildon.

At least 65 people are dead in the bushfires ripping through Victoria, in a disaster which has eclipsed the state's Ash Wednesday devastation of two decades ago. Authorities are continuing a grim search for more bodies as horrific eyewitness accounts emerged from devastated communities. It was estimated at least 700 homes had been lost - 550 of them in the Kinglake area. Victoria Police authorities had confirmed 65 deaths. But the final toll could be much higher as authorities move deeper into affected towns. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced emergency relief funding for the state, saying, 'Hell in all its fury had visited ... many good people lie dead.' Whole towns have been destroyed and thousands of people left homeless with record temperatures and fierce winds sparking devastating infernos. The town of Marysville was reported to have been wiped out. Premier John Brumby called the bushfires, 'a monster that couldn't be controlled.'

Authorities have begun to assess the aftermath of what are almost certainly the worst blazes the state has ever seen, with fears the death toll could rise dramatically as fires continued to burn. The Herald Sun's John Ferguson viewed some of the devastation from a helicopter, describing Marysville as a 'disaster zone' that looks as if a cyclone has ripped through it, with 90% of houses destroyed. Fires previously confined to Kilmore, Kinglake and Murrindindi have now joined to form the what is being referred to as the Kinglake complex fires, with a fire front stretching more than 100km wide. The blaze now extends from Kilmore in the west to Marysville in the east and has so far burnt through 120,000 ha, closing the Hume, Melba and Maroondah highways. DSE spokesman Stuart Ord said the Kinglake Complex blaze would burn for days. 'The fire is burning towards Eildon and stretches as far as Yarra Glen.' More than 500 firefighters, 33 tankers, one helicopter and two fixed wing aircraft are battling the blaze.

9 February

They were lost before we knew they were gone. Early on Saturday night, television news reports spoke of no deaths. Houses had been razed, properties scorched. There were stories of great escapes and victims vowed to rebuild. But no one yet could know just how many gruesome revelations awaited. Of six people dead in a car accident in Kinglake. Of the badly burned Kinglake man kept alive for six hours by being submerged by friends in a pool. Of the Marysville firefighter who lost his wife and daughter while fighting the blazes. Of the motorcyclist burnt alive in St Andrews. Of the woman who left fighting the fires to save her goats who was found dead by her son in a shed. As Melbournians went to bed on Saturday night, and confusion reigned, some hoped the worst of the news concerned properties lost. Perhaps deaths had been avoided. No one knew that dozens were already dead.

First, there was talk of one death. Then six. About 10.30pm, Premier John Brumby announced 14. By Sunday morning, it was thought up to 40 were lost. 26 were confirmed dead at 11am yesterday. By 12.30pm, as firefighters battled seven major fronts, it was 35. It was worse than anyone dared imagine. A hellish vision of nature at its cruellest has emerged, of a conspiracy of drought, heat and winds. It is the tale of the Perfect Fire Storm. Something like 26 fires would blaze through Victoria on Saturday. As Melbourne awoke to what would be the hottest day ever, 46.4C, fires already raged in the Bunyip State Park. They jumped containment lines in the late morning. Everyone, including firefighters, got out of its path. The Kilmore East fire started just after 11am. Within an hour, it had jumped the Hume Highway and raced towards houses. It appears it marched due east towards Kinglake. About 150 homes were lost in Wandong. At least four people died there. Residents gathered at Kinglake Oval for a hellish night in the smoky haze, fretting missing friends and relatives. Roads were strewn with blackened animal carcasses. The fire's speed stunned everyone, including firefighting veterans. One watched as it crested a hill and raced 1.5km in five minutes. 

A few hours after the Kilmore fire first erupted, the Murrindindi fire flared. At some point, the two fronts appeared to join to form a front 100km wide and continued to rage eastwards. The flames glowed red on the ridge as mountain ash, 20m or taller, went up, and embers landed more than 20km away. It appears this combined blaze flew through the towns of Narbethong and Marysville, both isolated from firefighter assistance. Yesterday, it just kept on going, northwards.

Marysville, which now looms as one of the deadliest fireballs, was not added to the list of affected towns until yesterday morning. It was estimated 80% of Marysville properties were destroyed. It was probably more. Again, the fire speed prevented those fleeing the flames from gathering possessions. Anecdotal reports yesterday suggested at least 5 people who chose to fight the fire died in Marysville. The flames were described as a holocaust. Yesterday, from above, the main street was black. Only the bakery appeared to be standing. Marysville highlighted the wider logistical problems. Fire crews of up to 40 trucks and planes could not get into the town, a common scenario spelt out by frustrated CFA heads on Saturday night, mainly because of fallen trees and burnt out cars. A lament was repeated in quavered voices on talkback radio through Saturday night. The flames are everywhere. 

Earlier, as Melbourne was enveloped in an ominous grey haze and the temperature suddenly dropped 15C, the late afternoon cool change fanned fires in new directions. The Murrindindi and Kilmore fires formed a circle of flames. Late on Saturday night, Premier John Brumby said it 'was the worst day in our history.' But even he couldn't know how bad it was. No one did. The bad news just kept pouring in. Talkback callers couldn't find loved ones. And the fires kept burning. Victoria has never suffered a worse bushfire day. And even now, we still don't know how bad it was.

The death toll has soared to 108, 750 homes have been lost and entire towns have been wiped out. The soaring death toll now makes this officially Australia's worst natural disaster. Up to 100 were still missing. Shocked survivors said parts of the state looked though they had been hit by a nuclear bomb. Most of the damage was done by two massive fires - one that virtually wiped out towns northeast of Melbourne including KInglake and Marysville, and a second inferno that raced across Gippsland. The toll surpasses the Black Friday holocaust of 1939, in which 71 were killed, and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, which claimed 47 Victorians. As the scale of the disaster unfolded, an emotional John Brumby said: ''I have never seen anything like this and hope to never see it again.'' Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called in the army and started a $10 million relief fund. Picturesque Marysville was virtually wiped out and there are fears nearby Narbethong suffered a similar fate. With cooler weather predicted, authorities are racing to contain all fires while they have the chance. Thousands of exhausted firefighters were still on the fire front last night, many unable to return to their own ravaged communities. Mr Rudd said soldiers and bulldozers would be assigned to help build containment lines around the major blazes. ''The nation grieves with Victoria tonight,'' he said. Mr Brumby said his heart went out to those caught up in the disaster and called on Victorians to dig deep to help the thousands of people who have lost loved ones or houses. ''It is one of the most tragic events in Victoria's history,'' he said. ''For so many of us the scale of this tragedy defies comprehension. It is your generosity and selflessness that will see Victoria through this dark hour.'' Nothing - nothing - can quite explain the sensation of flying low over the devastation in and around Marysville. The pilot of the helicopter described it: ''It's Armageddon.'' Maybe 12 houses survived, the rest - and there were many - flattened. Flames from burning gas outlets leapt into the atmosphere; houses were burned to the ground, the odd family plaything like a bike a charred mess. Gone were the main pub and the football club. Birds, locals said, were blown out of the sky. There is horror to be found in that town. Marysville was an utterly ghostly scene. Few dared tread its streets. Most evacuated to Alexandra. The path of destruction didn't stop at Marysville. From Marysville towards Alexandra, scores of trees fell on to the main highway. Just down the road, Buxton burned as well and locals who fled reported flames 100m high marching towards their houses. ''The cloud plume was like an atomic bomb went off,'' said concreter Robert Davies. Rarely do such comparisons seem apt. Then again, this destructive series of blazes from the Wimmera to Gippsland, Bendigo and in between were the rarest of fires.

10 February

Public donations for fire victims have topped $30 million in just two days in an unprecedented outpouring of generosity and community spirit. A total of $28 million has been donated to the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Fund, which doesn't include corporate and government donations. A temporary morgue has been set up at Victoria's State Coronial Services Centre to accomodate the mounting toll of victims. Coroner Jennifer Coate said 101 victims had already been received into the facility. In Marysville, Mr Brumby said it looked as though a bomb had gone off in the once picturesque town. "I have never seen anything like this in my life. It is a mixture of fire, hurricane and cyclone - houses, trees just snapped in half."

11 February

A firefighter who saw children chased down the streets of Marysville by the inferno vowed never to go back. According to a shocked John Munday:
       ''We had people banging on the sides of our tanker begging us to go back to houses where they knew there were people trapped. But we couldn't, because if we had we'd all be dead too. There were children running down the streets with flames behind them. It was hell. I never want to go back to that place, never. As we drove down to the Gallipoli park, where people were assembling, we knew there were people in homes that were on fire and they had no hope. The whole town died around us as we bunkered down on the outside of the oval ringed by funeral pyres. All around us, we had the screaming noise of gas cylinders exploding in homes.''
Police have declared Marysville a crime scene. 

12 February

Locals say a fire started on a wind-blasted hill above Saunders Road in Kilmore East about 11.20am on Saturday. A howling northerly sent the blaze like an arrow to St Andrews on the outskirts of Melbourne. A southwesterly then sheeted it right across to Kinglake and Marysville, vaporising humans and homes in its path.

13 February

Police have appealed for information about a suspicious blaze they believe started near the Murrindindi Mill on Saturday. Detectives believe the Murrindindi Mill fire, which burnt through Murrindindi Mill, Marysville and Narbethong killing at least 22 people, may have been deliberately lit. The official tally of houses destroyed in bushfires across the state at 1831, with 7000 people displaced.

14 February

Marysville residents have returned to the Victorian town for the first time since deadly bushfires swept through the area last Saturday. At least 15 people have been confirmed dead, but authorities believe as many as 100 Marysville residents may have perished. Residents were taken on a tour of the decimated town in a convoy of buses today. Police allowed the town's survivors to see what was left - the visit was for an hour, they were not allowed to get off the bus and were forbidden from taking photos with cameras or phones. Police still want to speak to anyone who was near the Murrindindi Mill last Saturday as they hunt down the arsonist who lit the bushfire which razed Marysville.

15 February

Families who escaped the Marysville inferno with seconds to spare want to thank a mystery policeman who saved 200 lives. They say the unknown police officer ordered people gathered on the football oval to flee moments before fire destroyed their town last Saturday. Marysville gardener and State Emergency Service volunteer Mark Peart reckons the brave cop is his town's 'unsung hero'.

16 February

Police have confirmed more bodies have been found in bushfire-ravaged areas of Victoria. An updated death toll is expected to be released later today. The official death toll currently stands at 181.

17 February

Police have appealed for patience as they work to establish the final death toll from the Victorian bushfires. A further eight people were confirmed dead on Monday, taking the number to 189. Police figures show Strathewen was the town hit hardest by the fires with 40 killed - one fifth of its population. The death toll for the tourist town Marysville rose to 36 with many more expected. The official figure for the Churchill fire was revised down from 21 to 10. Firefighters are battling 21 blazes this evening, 15 of which are contained.

19 February

Disaster Victim Identification teams are now focusing on Marysville as they search for more bodies in the wake of the deadly Victorian bushfires. The death toll from the Victorian bushfires has risen by seven to 208.

20 February

The death toll from the Victorian bushfires has risen by one today, to 209, nearly two weeks after the Black Saturday fires that razed hundreds of thousands of hectares of bushland in the state and destroyed hundreds of homes. 38 deaths have now been reported in Kinglake, 42 in Strathewen and 45 in Marysville and earlier this week, Victoria Police said they did not expect the death toll to go much higher than 201.

21 February

A second search of areas where people died in the Victorian bushfires has resulted in the discovery of more human remains. Firefighters are focusing on building more containment lines around bushfires in Victoria today, before predicted hot weather on Monday. The remains have been found at Kinglake, Hazeldene and Marysville during a second search. Four fires are still burning north and east of Melbourne and have burnt more than 260,000 hectares of land. The weather is expected to warm up and become windy on Monday. Next week's weather conditions are expected to create even more work for firefighters, and  psychologists say their grief and trauma often centres around a sense of personal responsibility. John Munday has been a Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer for about 20 years. He was one of the last firefighters to leave Marysville two weeks ago as the town and dozens of its residents were claimed by the firestorm. ''Just feeling it helps, you know, that we were in the face of something that we just didn't have any control over I guess,'' he says. ''Obviously decisions to have to ultimately ensure that we preserve the lives of our crews was very hard when you knew that there are people all around us, obviously, that desperately  needed our help.''

23 February

Fires are out-of-control in Melbourne's outer east, central Victoria and Gippsland, as the official toll from the devastating Black Saturday blazes hit 210. The additional fatality was confirmed in the township of Strathewen which has now lost 43 of its 200 residents, following a death in the hospital.

25 February

Around 600 people have attended a memorial service at Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, for those who died in the bushfires. The service, held at the golf club, was told of the community's determination to rebuild, but not to forget those who were lost. At least 45 people died in the bushfires in the Marysville area. Meanwhile, reinforcements from interstate and New Zealand are being rushed to Victoria's bushfire zones to help shore up fires before Friday. Hundreds of Victorian firefighters have been working around the clock to contain six major fires, before more dangerously hot, windy weather.

26 February

Hundreds of Victorian schools and child care centres will be closed tomorrow because of the bushfire threat. About 200 government and independent schools and more than 40 kindergartens and child care centres have already decided to remain shut. Four major fires will be the focus of tomorrow's efforts.

11 March

Army reservists have moved into Marysville, north-east of Melbourne, to join Victorian Police in search for the bodies of victims of the Black Saturday bushfires. They hope to complete the task by the end of next week. 45 people are known to have died in Marysville.

22 March

Every person missing after the Black Saturday bushfires is now accounted for and the death toll has been capped at 210. Residents yesterday returned to the devastated town after a thorough police search of Marysville had not found any more human remains, so police were allowing residents to return - though road blocks would remain to keep non-residents away. The provisional death toll of 210 includes 45 from Marysville, but that number could change as victims of Australia's worst natural disaster continue to be identified.

30 March

It is as far from the Hollywood red carpet as you could get, but Cate Blanchett found an appreciative audience as she walked the blackened streets of Marysville. Surrounded by rubble and charred trees, the Oscar winner and her family brought some joy to the shell-shocked town when they joined a community tea party. Blanchett quietly mixed with the Black Saturday survivors and listened to their stories while helping to lift the mood. She left a poignant message when she signed a yellow ribbon tied around the giant oak tree in front of the remains of the Marysville kinder and preschool. 'Here's to creating tomorrow's memories and here's to an even greater Marysville,' she wrote.

31 March

The Black Saturday death toll has been revised down to 173, but police warn it may be months before an exact figure is established. Post-mortem investigations by the Coroner's Office have cut the toll from 210 after it was found that some of the remains, believed to be from multiple victims, were in fact from the same person. Some of the charred remains were also found to be animal bones. Deputy Police Commissioner Kieran Walshe said relatives of victims whose bodies could not be identified might eventually honour their loved ones with a joint cremation. So far 87 victims have been formally identified. The biggest drop in the official death toll came in Strathewen, where 27 people are now confirmed dead after initial reports that 43 of the hamlet's 200 residents were killed. Marysville's toll has been revised from 45 to 34. Overall, the death toll in the Kinglake-Whittlesea region dropped from 196 to 159. The toll from the Gippsland fires remains at 11, Mudgegonga stays at 2 and Bendigo at 1. 
7 April

Bushfire-ravaged Marysville must be rebuilt in a sea of trees, locals have told the bushfire royal commission. A community consultation meeting yesterday heard calls for fuel reduction to protect Marysville from future infernos. But other locals made an impassioned plea that the town not lose its heritage as a tourist magnet. 'Marysville without trees would not be Marysville,' one said. Marysville, where 34 died, still looks like it was carpet-bombed. Huge piles of twisted metal and burned timber line the streets, surrounded by temporary fencing. Peter Graf, who saved his house, one of only 32 still standing, said gas bottles fuelled the inferno. 'We heard a gas bottle going off every few minutes. My neighbour nearly got killed by a gas bottle,' he said. 'There was a neighbour's house that burned because the valve on a gas bottle went and it became a flame-thrower.' Michael Wood said he saved his house because he was very well prepared and did not panic. 'Talking to people, it's clear they panicked. Some people went hysterical,' he said. 'It was like an atomic bomb, a nuclear holocaust. I had to hold my nerve.' Peter McCormack said his home had been surrounded by impenetrable forest, so he abandoned it; miraculously, it survived. 'The roar of that fire - it haunts me,' he said.

8 April

More than $300 million has been donated to Black Saturday victims. The Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund yesterday hit more than $301 million and will continue to rise. The response is unprecedented in Victoria, with donors from the Queen down reaching into their pockets. Fund officials will today reveal that almost $190 million has already been distributed. The fund has wildly exceeded expectations. Bushfire Appeal fund chairman John Landy said the fires had had an overwhelming impact. 'With that, came the most generous outpouring of financial support this nation has ever seen,' he said. 'This overwhelming generosity has made a significant difference to the recovery of those who were so drastically affected by the fires and to the rebuilding of their lives.' The fund yesterday confirmed the $300 million mark was met as officials seek to collect all the money by June 30. Of the $190 million, $130 million went to home owners whose principal place of residence was destroyed. They received lump sum payments of $35,000. A further $30 million was paid to people who lost their principal place of residence or were unable to return home. About $8 million was set aside for people who lost their work tools, and $9 million for minor property repairs. More than $9 million was set aside to help councils deliver services. The Government will reveal further allocations from the fund today. Mr Landy said the appeal panel had done is best. 'It has been a significant task but I believe the panel has struck the right balance between ensuring that funding is dispersed with the intent of donors and the needs of those individuals who have endured the worst natural disaster in Australia's history,' he said.
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