In 2003, fire closed in on Rod’s hometown. Here is his account of living through the fire, the danger and the fear.
Omeo is a small town in the Victorian high country. It shares this part of the mountains with three other villages; Benambra, Swifts Creek and Ensay. This is where I was born and where I lived for almost fifty years. Although I no longer live in Omeo I still call it my home town.
The country to the north of Omeo is mountainous and rugged and forms part of the Alpine National Park. Much of it is inaccessible; steep and covered in dense vegetation. In times of extended drought these mountains and the farmland within are tinder dry. The months leading up to the summer of 2003 saw low rainfall and high temperatures. Coupled with the potential for dry thunder storms these are the conditions that communities in the high country dread.
Lightning struck in a deep isolated gorge and started what were to become the worst fires since those that devastated the region in 1939. In fact for total area burnt these fires would surpass those of ’39. The resulting loss of property, livestock and native flora and fauna would be almost incalculable. The physical and psychological effect on those people who confronted this natural disaster would be felt for years to come.
January is always the high fire danger period and as in previous years the whole of Victoria was aware of the potential of a wild fire outbreak. Yet, the enormity of what was about to happen was unrealized in the days leading up to the Australia day weekend in 2003.News programs on local and national broadcasts told of many fire outbreaks in the north east of Victoria and in the south east of New South Wales. Some of these fires were causing major damage to farmland, homes and property. Others were in bushland with no immediate threat to human life or property and would eventually burn themselves out. This happens every summer somewhere across our vast country. However in 2003 there were a number of fires that remained alight after the danger to human life and property had supposedly passed. Continuing to burn these fires moved to join other fires and as each front merged the main fire fronts grew until three major fires met to form an unstoppable force that was going to burn almost all of the Victorian high country. ( A report published by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment after the fires indicated that 1.3 million hectares had been burnt along with 41 homes and 9000 head of livestock.)
It was around the 13th of January that the first indication of impending danger to Omeo became evident and in the following days the town prepared itself for what was to come. Family members still living in Omeo kept us informed as to what was happening. The outlook was not good and as I had close ties with the town I opted to take time off from work and go to Omeo. There was little I could do by remaining home. At the very least it meant company and support for Mum who otherwise would have been alone as the fires approached. I loaded a fire fighting unit onto my 4wd ute and headed off up the Great Alpine Road.
Normal day to day activities in and around Omeo had ceased. Replaced by a sense of urgency and dreaded expectation of what the town was about to face. The Recreation Reserve had been transformed into the main control centre for emergency services and from here the huge task of co- coordinating fire fighting efforts was taking place. Over the coming days the pavilion at the reserve would provide accommodation and catering for fire fighters. Fire brigades from all over Victoria and southern New South Wales formed part of the huge force that was based in Omeo. Ground crews were supported by firebombing fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
The town was rallying to the call for volunteers. It seemed that everyone was busy cleaning up, constructing fire breaks and removing anything that would add fuel to a fire. The townsfolk were on edge and a local farmer summed up the general feeling when he said, “If this bloody fire is coming it should hurry up and get here. I am sick of not knowing what will happen.” Hardly surprising as the town had been waiting and worrying for over a week. Despite this everyone knew that they had to be prepared to defend homes and livelihoods against the threat that was slowly yet relentlessly approaching.
At night the close proximity of the fires was more evident. An eerie red glow illuminated the sky to the north. The street lights shrouded in smoke created a surreal, semi obscured streetscape. Headlights pierced the gloom with yellowy shafts of light. The smell of burning leaves hung heavy in the air.
By Friday, January 24th, Omeo was pretty much surrounded by fire even though the main fire had not yet arrived. The danger was from spot fires which were igniting at random. I joined a group of locals to patrol the town’s outskirts. It was impossible to know how many fires started that day but I recall a very busy few hours as we rushed from one place to the next. The fires we attended were a few of many that started and were contained before loss of property occurred. By late afternoon the immediate danger had passed and the town returned to watching and waiting.
Later I visited a mate I hadn’t seen for a while. Ron greeted me in his usual laid back manner. “G’day ‘ol mate. The bastards tried to burn me out.” He continued wetting down smouldering horse dung with a garden sprayer. “Handy bit of gear this” he remarked. Then in the same breath,” D’ya wonna beer?” We adjourned to his shed for a beer or two and a yarn. From there we could see across to the mountain that rises beside the town. The fire that threatened Ron’s house had burnt down the side of Mt Mesley leaving ash and still burning trees in its wake. As light faded we watched the glow of small fires flickering in the darkness. Occasionally a loud crash broke the silence and a shower of sparks signalled a gutted tree relinquishing its hold on life.
That night at the Hilltop Hotel, we gathered in the bar. In limited light supplied by a generator we drank our beers. At first the conversation was subdued but as the beer mellowed our mood talk turned to the day just passed. I remember one story of survival told by the daughter of a local farmer. She had been keeping an eye on her father’s home while he was out on the farm doing what he could to ensure the safety of livestock and property. Her father’s old Kelpie dog had recently given birth to pups in the hayshed near the house. As fire approached the dog was seen moving her pups one by one out of the hayshed. When the fire had passed the pups were found, huddled in the entrance to a wombat hole. They were all alive but the old dog was dead; overcome by the fire as she stood guard.
The next day was much the same as every other day had been since the start of the fires. We watched and we waited as the fire tankers continually patrolled the town. Spot fires were still causing problems. As weary crews returned to base for a well-deserved rest and food, others were ready to leave. Emergency vehicles came and went constantly. Police, Ambulance and State Emergency personnel all added to the real sense of danger that the townsfolk were feeling. All day long the air was thick with smoke and ash. At times, depending on wind direction and strength a film of grey ash would blanket everything. We were in a world devoid of colour. The day passed slowly and as night descended we were aware that the next day would bring worse conditions for the town.
Australia Day. January 26th. 2003. As day dawned over Omeo we awoke to the realization of our worst fears. A northerly wind had picked up and was threatening to strengthen during the day. With rising temperatures it was a recipe for disaster. The wind blew in more and more ash and debris from the fires now burning in a semi-circle just a few kilometres from town. All morning reports filtered in from outlying areas. We didn’t know exactly what was going on or how close the fires were. It was a worrying and frustrating situation. By mid- morning we were hearing reports that fire was moving into Omeo Valley; only twelve kilometres north. To the north east at Benambra fire was raging across open plains. Listening to local UHF radio chat gave an insight into the fear and desperation of those facing the fire.
As the morning wore on it became evident that despite the huge number of tankers and fire fighting crews in the area there were some local farmers and residents of outlying areas who would have to face this horror on their own. Their very survival would depend entirely on their ability to fight the fire alone. We were reasonably well protected in town and no one would be on their own against the fire. It would be a different story for those remote farms and isolated dwellings.
By 11.00am visibility in Omeo had been reduced to a few metres. The air was heavy and even indoors there was no escape from the smoke. It got darker and darker and by midday it was totally dark. An eerie and frightening blanket of thick smoke had completely blotted out the sun. It could mean only one thing. A huge fire burning with extreme heat was near the town. Still we could only wait. The fire that created all the smoke burnt in from the north. In bushland between the settlements of Glen Wills and Bingo it gathered intensity; driven by strong wind it literally raced down the Mitta River gorge totally devastating everything in its path; leaving a barren and smouldering lunar-like landscape. Hundreds of acres of farmland was burnt that afternoon along with hundreds of kilometres of fences and many farm buildings were laid waste. Amazingly this particular fire lessened in intensity and veered away from the town. Thankful as we were, we knew the danger was far from over.
I went home to Bairnsdale the next day with the intention of returning to Omeo if the situation worsened. This turned out to be a bad move because the authorities closed the Great Alpine Road to all except emergency and essential services traffic. Hence, I have no first- hand knowledge of the events that took place over the next few days. I do know that for many it was a very trying and stressful time. I know that people close to me were involved in life threatening situations. I know that in several instances the loss of life and property was avoided by the narrowest of margins. I know that some were not so lucky and suffered the loss of things that can never be replaced.
Through all this the spirit and steely resolve of the Omeo community shined brightly. The willingness to help each other in time of need and, in some cases risk personal safety to assist a mate or neighbour is a characteristic of the people.
Sometimes we forget that in the scheme of things we are vulnerable to much that is beyond our control. Every now and then something comes along that jerks us back to reality and reminds us that we are but a small part of the big picture.