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Human reflections on an inhuman catastrophe

18 May 2013 981 views No Comment

SEVENTY years on from the Black Friday catastrophe of 1939, 173 Victorians died as the result of rampaging fire on the afternoon of February 7, 2009. Ten of these victims of Black Saturday perished in Steels Creek, a small and intimate community on the outskirts of Melbourne.

It is with the multifaceted effects on this close-knit community that this deeply moving and insightful book primarily deals.
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As a military-social historian, Peter Stanley has long been fascinated by the ways in which bushfires resemble battles. As he explains, “both are chaotic, traumatic events; both are fought against a physical enemy; and both bring fear, suffering, heroism, destruction, and death”.

Although Stanley has never experienced a battle or a bushfire firsthand, after listening to dozens of people from Steels Creek talking in detail about what he calls “their fire”, he has produced a compelling narrative, a work of the first order. This is largely because Stanley has researched and written this important book “as a sympathetic observer, one able to comprehend, translate, and convey a version of the experience – at least to make sense of it.”

Black Saturday at Steels Creek not only magnificently chronicles the dreadful events that occurred that February day and the varied effects thereafter, but – to this reviewer at least – Stanley explains these highly charged, life-changing experiences to the benefit of the citizens of Australia as a whole, be they urban, suburban, regional or rural. This at least in part is because the stark reality is that flood, drought and fire affect us all deeply. Indeed, for as long as humans have lived here, bushfires have been an integral part of the precarious life on this continent.

Stanley conceived this book, written while he was head of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia, as a community-based history. Hence he relies primarily on the memories, however different and diverse, of 50 citizens from Steels Creek. Earlier last year, Stanley sensibly sent his draft manuscript out to all the people to whom he had spoken, to gather their comments, additions and corrections.

It is a sign of the confidence he inspired in the local community that Stanley received overwhelmingly helpful and positive responses, which have been incorporated into the final text.

It is fascinating to discover the varied human responses to this catastrophic fire and the ordeals that inevitably ensued.

The sad reality is that on Saturday, February 7, 2009, Melbourne’s temperature reached 46.4C – the hottest day in the 154 years since records began. The previous highest temperature had been 45.6C on January 13, 1939: Black Friday.

This extreme temperature was coupled with winds that reached 90km/h and fanned the fire. This meant that within minutes the unstoppable conflagration became the most lethal fire in Australia’s post-settlement history.

Not only did the magnitude of the 2009 fire exceed that of 1939, but while the Country Fire Authority had been helpful with previous smaller bushfires, it was unable to respond effectively to such a large-scale, catastrophic blaze. To make matters worse, on Black Saturday when the bushfire thundered towards Steels Creek, the CFA had not issued clear and timely warnings to those in its path. As Stanley poignantly puts it: “In the event, the people of Steels Creek – like almost everyone else in the area that burned on Black Saturday – would face the fire largely on their own.”

This fine book benefits greatly from a number of excellent maps drawn by Jennifer Sheehan. It is touching to record that the names of the people who died at Steels Creek are now stitched into a quilt that is on display at the newly extended local community centre, which opened in April last year. For the record, here are the 10: Charmian Ahern, Leigh Ahern, Jenny Barnett, John Barnett, Jaeson Hermocilla, Melanee Hermocilla, Lynne James, Gail Leonard, Greg Leonard and Greg Lloyd.

Yet despite all the heartache caused by Black Saturday, it is extremely pleasing to know that in 2013 Steels Creek remains a genuinely involved, active and often still hopeful community.

‘Black Saturday at Steels Creek’
By Peter Stanley
Scribe, 240pp, $27.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian May 18-19, 2013, Review, Books, pp24-25