Six months on from the Saint Patrick’s Day fires that burned 40,000 hectares in Victoria’s south-west, it is clear the devastation has left an indelible mark on the close-knit farming communities.
The blaze destroyed 22 houses, 40 sheds and thousands of livestock on the outskirts of the small country towns of Cobden, Camperdown, Terang, Gazette and The Sisters.
Firefighters had warned of a severe fire risk, with the mercury hitting the mid-30s and wind gusts of 104km/h, before disaster struck at night fall on the Saturday.
Investigators said a 50-year old power pole snapped in high winds at The Sisters, catching fire about 9pm on March 17, while powerlines clashed in high winds at Terang, causing electrical arcs which ignited vegetation.
Tree limbs felled powerlines at Camperdown and Gazette, sparking fires about 9.30pm.
More than 300 firefighters and 29 firefighting aircraft descended on the towns to dampen the fires threatening lives and farmer’s livelihoods.
Although good winter rain means the paddocks are now no longer charred, the emotional impact of the fire is still vivid in the community’s mind.
Lifelong Cobden resident Helen McLaren recalled learning of the blaze from a waitress while dining in Camperdown.
Helen said she drove back to Cobden to collect her dog and on her return she was shocked to find the town quiet and still.
“Back in Cobden at 9.45pm we were amazed that nothing was happening, no alarms, no movement, we felt no one knew about the fire,” she said.
Helen fled to Colac, a half hour drive from Cobden, where she rang friends and neighbours to alert them to the fire; amazingly some were asleep and unaware of the emergency.
She praised the VicEmergency app which gave her “constant updates” and said updates on Facebook and mobile phone communication were a “godsend”.
“I was texting with people all night until 4.30am when I was totally exhausted and fell asleep for three hours. I know others who were on Facebook all night and didn’t sleep,” Helen said.
She said the blaze brought memories of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires flooding back.
Helen was just 20 at the time and working at the Cobden Pharmacy, when a man entered the shop with severe burns to his face and his arms bandaged.
“They said there was a bushfire coming from Warrnambool way and he had been driving a water truck and got trapped in the flames and suffered severe burns as a result,” she said.
“This was the first any of us knew there was a fire in the area.
“I felt useless and didn’t know what to do.
“No one new where the fire was or which direction it was headed, I can remember just staring at the blood-red, smoke-filled sky and not knowing what to do or where to go,” she said.
“We went inside at home and waited, I can’t remember leaving or trying to because we didn’t know which direction was safe.”
Jancourt residents Juli and Paul Dwyer said they only became aware of the St Patrick’s Day fires when they went outside to check for any wind damage and “saw a red glow in the sky over the hill behind us”, and quickly fled to Port Campbell.
The Dwyers also likened this year’s blaze to the Ash Wednesday fires 35 years prior.
The couple said the 1983 blaze forced them to shelter at their home because it “was too late to go anywhere”.
“We were inside out of the heat and happened to go outside then smelt smoke, we took the children to the dairy and hoped for the best,” Juli said.
Former Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley told Dscribe in April that an integrated warning system involving the VicEmergency website, app and hotline, social media, emergency broadcasters and an emergency alert system had prevented deaths in the Saint Patrick’s Day fires.
“There is no doubt that timely and tailored information improves people’s ability to make decisions about their own safety,” he said.
“It is fortunate that we did not have any loss of life and no serious injuries from the south-west fires.”
Mr Lapsley said he had heard from south-west residents who escaped the blaze after receiving early notifications of about the fires via the VicEmergency channels.
“Information is the key to decision making and good decisions means a safer community,” he said.
“It is important to have more than one way to get information however, and never rely on just one channel.”
He warned people not to wait for an emergency warning before evacuating.
“Sometimes you will know there is a fire before the agencies do,” he said.