Black Saturday bushfires five years on

By Mike Hedge/AAP February 7, 2014
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Five years after Australia’s worst bushfire residents are recovering well.

FOR THE FIRST YEAR or so the people who survived the fireball that destroyed Marysville held on to each other.

Five years on from the Black Saturday bushfires that raged through their town and so many others, they are still bound together by their experience.

But pragmatism is now filling the emotional void as the town deals with the realities of recovery.

“For the first 12 months everyone was holding hands … openly showing their emotions, everyone was best friends,” says lifelong Marysville resident Bruce Ackerman. “The spirit around here was enormous.”

Reborn after the Black Saturday bushfires

It still is. But a sense of impatience now accompanies the goodwill as the holiday town in the hills north of Melbourne comes to terms with being reborn as something other than the quaint, romantic hamlet it once was.

The Black Saturday bushfire claimed 34 lives in Marysville and destroyed all but 33 of the 390 homes in the town.

More than 200 homes have now been rebuilt and a new main street is taking shape.

In the centre of town a resort hotel is being built to replace the two – Keppel’s and the Cumberland – that occupied the same site for the best part of a century.

The old lolly shop has moved from the shipping container it occupied after the fire to a swish, new building, a generation of children has graduated from the new school, new football clubrooms are in full swing and the old patisserie is now a new one.

Perhaps one of the oddest renewals has been that of the police station. Planners seem to have anticipated a wave of crime would accompany the rebuilding and have constructed one of the biggest lock-ups in country Victoria.

There’s a new swimming pool, new kindergarten, new day-care centre, new supermarket and new families have replaced some of those who didn’t, or couldn’t, come back.

Remnants of the bushfire

There are also stark reminders of what happened. On every ridge above Marysville the trees burned beyond regeneration stand skeletal against the sky and just about every tree trunk in the town is black.

Many of the long-time residents have understandably found it difficult to move on.

“Some people wish for the old Marysville,” Mr Ackerman says. “It’s gone. It won’t come back and we probably shouldn’t try and bring it back. You come to the realisation that the town is much more than the buildings. It’s the people – and we’ve got some good people here, old timers as well as new families.”

Ray Mahoney, who with his wife Carol runs the post office, also has faith in his town’s recovery.

“A few businesses have closed down after reopening,” he says. “But I really think we’ll kick on from here. The great thing has been the community spirit – I don’t know anybody who came through the fire that isn’t a better person now.”

Recovering after a bushfire

Recovery in Marysville has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by differences of opinion and frustration at bureaucratic processes.

Some believe survivors who lost everything in the fire fared better than those whose homes were merely damaged. Others question the priorities of governments and insurers who decide what is to be done.

“One of the first things we needed was somewhere to get together and meet, but it took two years,” Mr Mahoney said. “Now we need a pub.”

Other issues have arisen over the style of the reconstruction.

Some residents would like the Victorian cottages and guest houses that had stood for 100 years to be re-created. Others want to seize the opportunity to modernise.

“It was all pretty quaint and nice,” says Mr Mahoney. “But you’ve got to accept that they would all have gone eventually. We just got to that point in the future a lot sooner.”

Mr Ackerman is another who does his best not to dwell on the past – and he mostly succeeds.

“We’ve got a brand new town,” he says. “There will be things we’ll all miss, times when you get sentimental. But the reality is that it’s going to be a different, and even better, town.

These are very exciting times. The average age of people buying here is getting younger and younger. “We’ve got a new town, new families, new people.”

As the fifth anniversary of Black Saturday rolls around most in the town would prefer to let it pass quietly.

And then for visitors to come and stay.