Black Saturday: before and after

By Andrew Quilty 8 November 2013
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Photographer Andrew Quilty covered the Black Saturday bushfires – two years later, he documents the regrowth.

Photographer Andrew Quilty covered the Black Saturday bushfires. Two years later, he documents the regrowth.

CROSSING THE POLICE ROAD block and driving east from Whittlesea on an eerily still morning just a few days after the worst bush fires in recent Australian history was like stepping into another world. It was a division of black and white. 

When it came to these fires, it seemed there was life or death with very little in between. My colleagues and I wound our way through the towns of Kinglake, Humevale, Flowerdale, Hazeldene and all those other settlements that suddenly found themselves on the national and even international radar for all the wrong reasons. Through Steels Creek, Pheasant Creek and Clonbinane everywhere we went was lifeless.

Coming to a ridge, a cul de sac at the end of Bald Spur Road, near Kinglake, we looked south toward Melbourne (visible on a clear day) over a rainbow of grey ridge-lines, hillsides like giant stubbly chins, and what was left of Kinglake National Park. It was an open vista, thick with forest on all sides. Birds should have been singing, wind shuffling the leaves, animals scurrying in the undergrowth.

Instead… nothing.

Trees had been reduced to charred, black skeletons, the earth was baked and barren; there wasn’t a footprint or a snake trail let alone a bird flying above. There were no leaves and even as a gentle breeze blew up from the coast there was nothing for it to bother. Silence has never struck me like it did on Bald Spur Road that day two years ago.

I’ve been back a couple of times since then. Once in the July 2009 – five months after Black Saturday when the landscape, in all its monotonal, wintery greys looked much the same as it had only five days after. Mist mimicked smoke and fauna would have shed much of its superficial growth as per usual. I encountered a touching precursor to rebirth, invisible at that stage to the eye when, while cooking dinner over a camp stove near Lake Mountain (east of Marysville) with feathery snow-flakes floating down from the night sky, a giant, lumbering wombat made itself comfortable by the flames.

Returning 17 months later, I found that rebirth was brilliantly visible. The charred forest landscapes that had been burned in my memory – and, I had thought, into the realms of history, never to return – were barely recognisable. Lustrous mosses carpeted the forest floor, ferns had grown two metres in two years, each frond draped with spider webs. The earth was peaty and mulchy, oozing life. Towering eucalypts sprouted iridescent, green shoots while 20-meter lengths of bark lay at their feet after serving their seasonal, protective duties.

It was, it is, a real-life, super-sized, school science experiment happening before our eyes. Like an Apocalypse in reverse.

Andrew Quilty has published his images in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine and others. He has won a World Press Photo award and a Walkley for Young Australian Photojournalist of The Year. You can see more of his work on his website.