For me it was supposed to be a pretty quiet January day. But I looked out the window of my office on the 15th Floor of the State Admin Centre in Victoria Square and saw the ominous signs of smoke in the Adelaide Hills. And, as the heat of the day persisted, there were reports of more fires around our State, including a bad one on the Eyre Peninsula, north of Wangary, which had been contained by CFS firefighters. Tragically, the next day it was a different story.
Temperatures of more than 40 degrees and 70kmh winds had seen the fire jump its containment lines. Firefighters said the flames travelled at twice the speed of any recorded fire in South Australian history and was impossible to stop. Then the devastating news from CFS Chief Euan Ferguson: Eight people had died, including four children, caught in cars fleeing the holocaust heading towards them, and then a ninth, a local schoolteacher Helen Castle, whose body was found in the burnt out Shell Museum at North Shields. It was the worst fire tragedy in Australia since Ash Wednesday - local families, neighbours, a community and a State in shared shock and grief.
More reports came through. Around a hundred people injured, including some seriously who were flown to our brilliant Burns Unit at the RAH, where I had visited victims of the Bali bombing just over two years before. Other people with burns and smoke inhalation were treated by hard working staff at the Port Lincoln Hospital.
I flew to Port Lincoln, where the fire had threatened the airport. My first visit was to North Shields where I saw the devastation at the Caravan Park, with its burned out cabins and caravans. I was told that residents and visitors fled to the beach and even into the water. It was the same at Louth Bay where emergency services actually rescued some people from the sea. I was driven by the Chair of the District Council to see the devastation to local farm properties. We went to Wangary, Wanilla and other communities where volunteers were still going from house to house, searching for survivors.
More than 90 homes were destroyed, plus a large number of sheds, vehicles, farm machinery, 30,000 sheep and other animals both on farms and in the wild. There was massive damage to local infrastructure including to fencing, electricity, telephone lines and to water supplies, following extensive damage to the pipeline. Thousands of litres of bottled water were being trucked in.
The statistics told only part of the story. Buildings, cars, trucks, tractors and fences could be replaced but not the artefacts of memory; family heirlooms and albums, wedding photos and dresses, love letters, school reports, Dad's medals, grandma's brooch, footy and netball trophies and videos of the kids growing up. These were irreplaceable. Then there was the heartache of farmers forced to destroy injured animals that would otherwise have starved or died of thirst.
Driving from community to community I recall many things: the quiet; the eerie silence that reminded me of Ash Wednesday when I travelled with John Bannon to Greenhill Road, Mount Lofty and down to the pine forests in the South East. Once again there was no sound of birds, no sound of anything. The paddocks were covered by a carpet of ash, just as if there had been a snow storm. I remember the smell of burnt-out and burning eucalypts. I was also struck by the seemingly haphazard path of destruction with the fire wiping out one home then at great speed hopping over and sparing other properties before destroying the next.
Everywhere I went on that first, and subsequent visits I met good people rallying around; giving food, accommodation and helping their neighbours. That sense of community ranged a long way. Truckloads of hay sent by farmers hundreds of miles away; pots, pans, clothes, appliances, toys and money sent by good people from around our state and further afield.
Then there were the CFS volunteers. No wonder the fire helmet is up there with the slouch hat as a symbol of Australian courage and mateship. Hundreds of CFS, SES and other volunteers working tirelessly, back-burning, clearing up. Exhausted, and now being relieved by mates and strangers from near and far. At Wanilla I was told a crew from my own Salisbury CFS brigade had been through. Good people helping others.
Visiting with our wonderful Governor Marjorie Jackson Nelson, a great healer, we met and were deeply moved by locals, often hard hit themselves, putting their neighbours first. The spirit of volunteering was inspiring and some years later I again met West Coast SES volunteers at Adelaide airport on their way to help out with the floods in Queensland because "they had been there for us".
A Recovery Head Quarters was set up at the Port Lincoln High School where government, council and volunteer agencies met twice a day, morning and evening, to coordinate and measure progress. We appointed former CFS Chief Vince Monterola to become our Recovery Co-ordinator and a "duty Minister" system was invoked for the first time with Ministers sent over to Port Lincoln on rotation. First Rory McEwen and then others including Pat Conlon, the Infrastructure Minister, who was deployed for several weeks and given the power of the entire Cabinet to make decisions on the spot rather than go through the usual bureaucratic processes. When Rory, Pat, Vince and their committee made a decision that was "law" as far as I was concerned.
However it is the locals I most recall ten years on. I met many of them again at the memorial service, attended by two thousand people, including Governor Marjorie and Rob Kerin, at Wangary one year later. There were deeply moving speeches by young Meg McPherson, whose family lost their home and property, and by courageous Natalie Borlase, who lost her mother and two young children on Black Tuesday and who thanked people on behalf of all the affected families for the overwhelming love and support they had been given.
So, let us ten years on remember those whose lives were cut short and those who lost so much. Let us give thanks to the volunteers who risk their lives and then help communities heal and rebuild. There is no greater example of citizenship and no greater love.
Published in the Port Lincoln Times