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January 4, 2013. Morning. Dunalley’s residents watched a bush fire smouldering far off – no inkling that in a few hours they would flee for their lives.

Firestorm Multimedia Edition ebook

Firestorm: Surviving the Tasmanian bushfire
Jon Henley

£1.99/$2.99

The photographs stop you in your tracks. Five children and their grandmother sheltering under an old wooden jetty as the air around them burns a fierce orange. Seen around the world, these were the images from the heart of the inferno that showed the Tasmanian township of Dunalley fighting for survival.

On the morning of 4 January 2013, the people of Dunalley had watched with caution as a bush fire burned slowly on top of the hill. It was not an unusual occurrence – fires are a part of Australian life – and Dunalley had never been troubled before. They made their preparations, just in case. Even so, they had no idea what was about to hit them.

In the aftermath of the Inala Road fire, Jon Henley visited Dunalley. He spoke to the families there, shot video of the devastation and photographed the beautiful but deadly landscape. Minute by minute, they reconstructed what had happened – the residents, the emergency services … the moment the flames struck the first houses.

 

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About the Author

Jon Henley

Jon Henley is a Guardian feature writer. He formerly wrote the paper’s Diary column. He joined the paper in Amsterdam and has written from Brussels, Scandinavia and most recently Paris, where he was chief correspondent for nearly nine years until spring 2006.

Extract

This is Chapter 1 of Firestorm

 

What everyone remembers about that morning: it was a beauty. A beautiful, calm, clear Tasmanian summer morning. A cloudless sky; no wind to speak of. Not too hot, yet.

Something else they remember: there were no birds. At least, none they could hear. No birdsong. That was odd – eerie, even. Like something was holding its breath.

In the small coastal town of Dunalley, Tim Holmes was up, as usual, at 5.30am. There was a fire burning, a long way over the back of the hill, but headed – if it was heading anywhere on this still, airless day – nowhere very near. Nothing, really, to worry about.

But then, you never knew. And today he and Tammy had the grandchildren over. So Tim, a thoughtful and a practical man, climbed on his motorbike, drove 20 minutes up the winding, heavily wooded Arthur Highway into Sorell, and got the parts he needed to fit his fire pump to the 10,000-gallon concrete water tank.

He wasn’t what you’d call concerned. No one in Dunalley was. What little wind there was, was taking this fire away from them. In previous years there’d been other fires; they had always skirted the town, headed off along the coast.

There had even been houses evacuated, perhaps half a dozen times in the past 30-odd years. But each time, the fire had stayed round the back of the hill. There was no reason – no reason at all – to suppose this one would be different.

Halfway up the highway to Sorell, though, outside the straggling village of Forcett, John Maeer was starting to think it might be.

Maeer had spent much of the previous night watching it; the blaze had started just over the ridge behind his house on Inala Road. For a long time, things hadn’t looked too bad. In the evening, he and his son Andy had helped secure a neighbour’s house – the guy had only gone and put pine bark on his flowerbeds; the flying embers were absolutely loving that – and by morning the blaze looked like it would be meandering safely off to the left.

Maeer had doused his lawn and cedarwood home with water all the same until around 11am, when the power died and his electric water pump with it. Soon after, fast and without warning, the fire came back, tearing down the hill right behind him.

For a while – until they had better things to do – Maeer had six fire trucks on his drive. ‘In the end, it shot round us,’ he says. ‘Circled us and was gone. We lost the shed, not the house. But I didn’t have a good feeling about it.’

He wasn’t the only one. Thirty kilometres away, in Hobart, the state fire chief, Mike Brown, had also spent a sleepless night. Friday 4 January 2013, he knew, stood a fair chance of becoming Tasmania’s worst fire day in half a century.

The island had enjoyed two relatively quiet fire seasons, Brown knew: plenty of spring and summer rain in 2011 and 2012. But this meant there was an abundance of vegetation – a lot of foliage, a lot of brush – that would at some stage dry out, and become fuel for a fire. In addition, for more than a week, the Bureau of Meteorology had been predicting exceptionally hot, dry weather, accompanied by very strong northwesterly winds.

‘Every forecast we got, it was getting worse and worse,’ says Brown, a measured man who has fought fires for a living since he left high school. ‘It was ramping up to be really, really bad weather: even hotter, even drier, even windier. For bush fires, that’s the perfect storm.’

The service – 4,800 volunteers, 300 career firefighters, 150 support staff – pulled everyone back from New Year’s leave. It set up both state and regional operations centres. To the disgust of holiday campers, it decreed a total fire ban. It deployed crews and earthmoving equipment for firebreaks wherever it thought they might be needed. It waited.

Throughout 3 January, the Fire Danger Rating – an index introduced after the fatal Victoria fires of 2009 to better predict the impact of bush fires – was fluctuating between ‘severe’ and ‘extreme’, one short of the maximum, ‘catastrophic’.

That day, the fire service responded to about 50 fire starts around the state. Most were dealt with quickly. Four developed into major blazes, of which one, after threatening the historic town of Richmond, was eventually contained.

The other three – in the southwestern national park, in the Derwent Valley north-west of Hobart, and at Inala Road – just kept growing.

The forecast for the next day was even worse: extreme, all but uncontrollable, conditions. On the night between 3 and 4 January, Brown says, ‘We had winds of 100km/h. We had the hottest night Hobart had ever experienced, and we had dry lightning strikes around southern Tasmania, which started yet more fires.’

After 36 years in the fire service, Mike Brown recognised ‘the worst-case scenario. At least three significant fires already burning, in the worst possible conditions. So I really can’t really think of a worse case. January 4 was going to be a very big day.’

But by late morning, down in Dunalley, the Holmes family still had no tangible reason to share Brown’s fears. Nor did many of the 300-odd other residents of this small township strung out along the Arthur Highway. Home to a flourishing fleet of 20 fishing and scallop boats until as late as the 1970s, Dunalley is now a slightly sleepy, if undeniably picturesque staging post on the busy tourist trail from Hobart to the old British penal colony at Port Arthur.

At midday, Tim’s daughter, Bonnie Walker, got into her car to drive up the highway to Hobart. Not a happy occasion; she was going to a funeral, a friend of friends. Her husband David was also away, four days into a six-day hiking trip in the southwestern wilderness. But she knew the five children – from 11-year-old Matilda to Charlotte, two – would be just fine with their grandparents. The kids adored them.

Tim and Tammy Holmes lived next door to the Walkers’ old 1920s cottage in a handsome, two-storey brick-and-timber home Tim had built 25 years ago, soon after he and Tammy came here, when Bonnie was still small.

It was a spectacular site: a picture-postcard promontory overlooking Blackman Bay on the outskirts of town, a stone’s throw from the spot where, in December 1642, two rowing boats from Abel Tasman’s pioneering expedition to find the great Unknown South-land had put ashore to collect plants and water.

The family had briefly discussed the distant fire, debating whether it was still sensible for Bonnie to attend the funeral. But you live with fires all summer long in Australia. There were no warnings for Dunalley on the radio, or the fire service website. And there was still no real wind to speak of.

Everyone felt Bonnie should go. ‘We all thought it would be fine,’ says Tammy. ‘People were sitting out at the cafe here, having coffee. Even quite a bit later, I phoned a friend, the other side of the hill, and she said: “They’re saying it’s not coming this way.”’

Up the highway towards Forcett, though, the smoke was already thickening. Embers were flying, and the flames in the tall eucalyptus woods bordering the road were looking fit to jump it.

Bonnie wasn’t far past Sorell when the police closed the road behind her. She had no way of getting back. Mike Brown was right. It was going to be a very big day.

 

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