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Life after Australia's most devastating bushfire

When the text message from my neighbor came, ash was raining from the sky. In his message he warned me about a fire. There is a threat of coming down to us in the valley too, he wrote.

When we got into our car, we couldn't see any smoke in the immediate vicinity. But there was this ash, a clear sign that something was wrong. Less than ten minutes later we were on a river, safe. From there we saw the fire engulf the mountain and, at the end, our house.

We actually live in the city. We only came to our hut in the densely forested mountains near Melbourne to escape a brutal heat wave. Temperatures in the city should rise to 47 degrees Celsius, according to the forecast. That would have been the hottest day since the weather records began. The week before, the values ​​had settled somewhere at more than 40 degrees. Scientists call this "bushfire weather". They say that climate change brings these record temperatures with it.

Read more:Mourning the victims of the bush fires

Read more:Australia's fire service in a race against time

On this day, as every day before, there was an official warning of "extreme fire risk". However, wind speeds of 100 kilometers per hour and more were not common. The wind swept through the dust-dry forests of the region. The persistent drought had the trees in tinder The Prime Minister Victoria warned that February 7 would be the "worst day in the country's history." But that warning was not received by many, including me.

In the end the wind turned and the fire spared our valley. Still, we watched helplessly as other places in the northeast went up in flames. Many were ill-prepared. Many residents would not make it out of there alive.

In 2009, many Melbourne residents moved to the forests outside the city. They tried to avoid a brutal heat wave and instead ended up in a blazing inferno

"Like half a dozen jumbo jets"

David Barton and his then wife Jennifer also tried to withstand the extreme heat. From her home in Marysville, a town known for idyllic houses and tall eucalyptus forests. At around 3:45 p.m., they noticed smoke rising into the sky from the hills some distance away.

At this point the fire was still 35 kilometers away and on its way south, so still in my direction. But then the wind turned and sent the flames in the opposite direction, straight to the place where David and Jennifer had opened an antique shop the year before.

And the fire rolled forward faster and faster. In the meantime the winch had reached 120 to 130 kilometers per hour. In the city, the temperature rose to 56 degrees Celsius. The couple helped bring the elderly and sick to safety. When Jennifer was on her way to a hospital with an older woman, David decided to leave too. It was now 6:45 p.m.

David Barton's house before the fire - it was completely destroyed in the 2009 bushfires

When he left, the sky was completely black, says David. "And there was this incredible roar that spread through the city. As if half a dozen jumbo jets were taking off at the same time."

"If you looked down the main street of Marysville, you could see a wall of flames there. It glowed bright orange and was about 150 to 200 feet high. On top of it rose another wall of gray-black swirling Smoke, higher still, another 300 to 400 feet. "

"I just thought, God, this doesn't look good," says David.

The situation was so surreal for him that he only half realized what had happened, remembers David. Except for his dog and some water, he took nothing with him, not even his wallet.

Breathing became increasingly difficult as the fire sucked all the oxygen out of the air. Even so, David did not believe that the fire would actually penetrate into the center of the city.

Half an hour later it had completely overrun the city. It was an apocalyptic scene that resembled bombed-out streets in Syria, says David. Like many others, he too lost everything in the fire. No house survived the fire.

Carrying on is a difficult task

David says he warned friends and other residents in the city. But many who believed they could defend their belongings were killed in the deadliest bushfire in Australian history. Some still held molten hoses in their hands with which they wanted to extinguish their houses.

A total of 34 people died that day in Marysville. The fire claimed 173 lives across the country. How great the damage was to the community is incalculable. Like David and Jennifer, around 60 percent of Marysville residents have chosen not to come back to town, at least not right away. Instead, they moved closer to Melbourne. The Bartons' marriage failed less than two years later.

Like many Marysville residents, David Barton initially decided not to return to the city

They weren't the only ones whose relationship broke up as a result of Black Saturday, says David. He incorporated his experiences and the struggles he had to fight against his post-traumatic stress disorder into his doctoral thesis. Her topic is the way survivors deal with "attachment, loss and grief".

David is certain that if they had both returned to Marysville, things would be different between him and his wife today. They could have rebuilt the city with the rest of the community. In 2012, David went back alone. Looking back, he says that he had the feeling that he was among friends, even when so many were no longer there.

Warning signs and convenience

Today, almost ten years after the Black Saturday catastrophe, the government's official strategy calls on people to leave potential danger zones early. Many did not prepare for the inevitable, however, says David. Especially former city dwellers who moved to the countryside in search of peace and quiet.

I went back to my house myself in January to do some repairs. Again, the temperatures had climbed to values ​​above 40 degrees. To be honest, I haven't had a specific plan yet except to run if a fire breaks out.

Australian residents have been encouraged to prepare their homes for fire and defend them - but today they are advised to leave early

As a result of the fire and the release of a report by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, fire warning systems have been improved. They also now include a "Code Red" alert that will send text messages to residents of bushfire areas in an emergency.

Continue reading:Large fire with heating effect

Continue reading:"They will make our country disappear" - Aborigines fight against coal and climate change

Nevertheless, around one hundred houses in New South Wales and West Victoria were again destroyed by bush fires in 2018. As if by a miracle, nobody was killed. Even so, David fears that the events of "Black Saturday" will be forgotten over time. "The whole thing could just start over," he says.

In fact, all it takes is a change in wind direction.

Aspects of the bush fire

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Record temperatures, record fires

    The Victoria bushfires on Black Saturday were the deadliest in Australian history. They were preceded by an extremely hot period with temperatures of around 45 degrees Celsius. Strong winds and drought sparked an apocalyptic firestorm.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Many fires to fight

    On February 7, 2009, up to 400 individual fires broke out. When it was all over, dozens of people had died and hundreds of houses were razed to the ground. People who had lost everything often turned their backs on their homeland.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Post-traumatic stress

    David Barton's home in Marysville, Victoria burned down during the Black Saturday disaster. The traumatic experience haunts him to this day, and it also contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. He wasn't the only one. Many couples who survived the events broke up.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Wall of fire

    Driven by strong winds, huge walls of fire many meters high can arise. Many who tried to defend their houses with the garden hose were later found dead in their gardens, says David Barton.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Climate change

    In Australia, there are more and more weather conditions that favor bushfires, says the Australian Climate Commission. She concludes: "The intensity and seasonality of large bushfires in Southeast Australia appear to be changing, and climate change may be contributing to this."

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Not a new phenomenon

    Bushfires in themselves are not a new phenomenon on the driest, inhabited continent on earth. And since they have always been part of life, Australia's fauna and flora have adapted.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Pass and fuel

    Eucalyptus is one such species. The trees not only survive the flames, they even fuel them. Eucalyptus leaves contain an oil that has such a high octane rating that it can be used as fuel. Because eucalyptus survives fires, the tree keeps competition at bay.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster


    Several birds of prey, including the black kite, go a step further in Australia. They pick up burning branches and drop them elsewhere to start new fires. As the flames spread, they drive small rodents and birds out of their hiding place, making it easier for the "Firehawks" to catch them.

  • Bushfires in Australia 2009: Living with the Disaster

    Rapid rebirth

    Many fire-resistant plants have a lignified thickening at the base of the trunk called a lignotuber. It contains buds from which new stems can sprout and also nutrients so that the plants can recover quickly even after a fire, even if photosynthesis is not possible.

    Author: Harald Franzen