By Jacqueline Cooper
It is a cold and windy autumn afternoon as heavy rain pounds against the steel walls and roof of the Wairewa CFA shed. Inside sits fire captain Julian Davies and his wife Leanne. He’s recounting a night of utter devastation which wiped out half of his beloved hometown of 41 years in a single hour.
Wairewa is a small community in East Gippsland, four hours east of Melbourne, and consisting mainly of farmland with only 24 houses. Today only 13 of those are still standing, surrounded by paddocks turned a lush green by recent rainfall, but haunted from a night of terror barely three months prior.
Today’s weather is a stark contrast to that on the night of December 30, 2019 – a night that every resident of this small community will likely never forget.
Meteorologists warned in the days prior of a terrifyingly erratic day featuring high winds and temperatures, one that would likely cause devastating impacts to the communities in the vicinity of the East Gippsland bushfires which began a month before and had already burnt thousands of hectares of land.
“Fire behaviour could’ve very well gone anywhere it wanted to on the day, and it was basically predicted that it was going to come through late in the afternoon” Julian says.
“It was definitely not unexpected, we knew it was going to be coming through out of the forest and impact a community somewhere at some stage, it was just a matter of who and when.”
Born in Melbourne to Wairewa locals, Julian attended school in both Orbost and Bairnsdale and has worked on his father Victor’s dairy farm since he was a boy. Following in his father’s footsteps, Julian became the captain of the Wairewa fire brigade three years ago after first joining as a firefighter at the age of 16. To say that his love for Wairewa runs deep would be an enormous understatement.
The day the fire came, Julian and Leanne, along with Julian’s 19-year-old son Brenton, were cautiously patrolling their own property and Victor’s dairy farm, wary of the forecast change in conditions. That afternoon brought the view of a fire cloud approaching and, like many others, the Davies began the anxious wait to see exactly when the embers would begin to drop from the sky.
“Strike teams from other brigades from outside of East Gippsland were brought in to free up Wairewa CFA members to protect their own properties” Leanne says. She a fire fighter alongside her husband and the current brigade treasurer.
Reality horrifically set in for the Davies family and their fellow community members late that night, with embers raining down on Wairewa at 9pm before the fire front and subsequent windstorm tore through the community in the hour before midnight. It sunk in that Wairewa was going to burn.
Julian shudders as he recounts the moment the fire hit: “Between 11 o’clock and midnight, it was like a hurricane was coming through. It created its own storm and convection, its own tornado of sparks and debris, and the wind was just terrifying. It was the worst hour of our lives.”
The community hall became a last minute unofficial evacuation point for terrified locals who ran for their lives after it was too late to leave the town completely, with the CFA deploying a strike team from the nearby township of Nowa Nowa to defend the building filled with close to 30 terrified residents who had nowhere else to go.
“The hall wasn’t actually a designated evacuation centre, and for that reason there was no pre-plan or strike team originally allocated to defend it. It was just determined that it was the safest last-minute spot for people to resort to” Leanne says.
Julian adds: “We had to go around over the day, up to 9.45pm that night, advising people who had stayed that it was their last chance to leave their houses. The strike team leader said ‘Julian, we are here now to stay with you through this until it passes’. That was an incredibly comforting thing to know.”
In the early hours of December 31, conditions eased, and temperatures began to steadily drop. The fire front had passed. Trees, hay bales and the historic trestle bridge continued to burn and smoulder as daylight returned. Reports began to come in of the “bloody terrifying” night endured the defending CFA strike team and the people in the hall, which involved walls shaking and glass panes turning red hot. Julian says he takes his hat off to the support team for defending the community and enabling local brigade members to be able to try to defend their own homes.
“We were bloody lucky to have them because we never thought we would have a strike team here to help our little community,” he says.
“We were very lucky in the end. I honestly thought the next morning that we were going to find deceased people in their houses,” Leanne adds.
The East Gippsland bushfires were declared contained in late February, claiming more than 1.2 million hectares, 41 homes and 4 lives according to coverage by 9 News.
Wairewa now faces an emotional and lengthy road to recovery, which has so far been assisted by the “overwhelming” generosity of individuals around the world. Many now have questions demanding to be answered by those in power.
“It may very well be a fire that we will never see again, but there needs to be a look into more hazard-reduction burns and forest management. There are definitely people and organisations who now have a lot to answer for,” Julian says.
“The drive around the next morning after having no sleep, just counting the numbers of the houses that were gone. You look at some and go ‘no way that could’ve burnt down’ but they’re just flattened on the ground, completely obliterated.”
With tears in his eyes, Julian describes the heartbreak of revealing to community members that the fire had robbed them of their every possession.
“The hardest thing was when people contacted me the next day, I had to say, ‘I’m so sorry, but you have lost everything’. I don’t want to ever have to do that again,” he says.