Black Saturday: 10 years on - the Bendigo and Redesdale fires

CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR PHOTOS: Black Saturday - how Bendigo Advertiser photographers captured our darkest day in pictures.
CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR PHOTOS: Black Saturday - how Bendigo Advertiser photographers captured our darkest day in pictures.

THEN prime minister Kevin Rudd said it was the day hell and all its fury visited Victoria.

Few would argue.

As fire tore through the state, it took everything in its path. 

Too many lives were lost. Others, forever changed.

Properties were destroyed, livestock killed.

Victoria was forever scarred.

Black Saturday

On February 7, 2009, the state was on red alert.

Authorities warned it would be the worst day for fires since the devastating Ash Wednesday inferno in 1983 – and the weather lived up to its menacing threat.

No one will forget the colour of orange. Nor the wind, or the stifling heat.

No one will forget how eerie it was to walk outside. The feeling in the air. An unsettling knowing that something was to come.

And no one will forget what came next.

173 people died. Livestock were killed. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Entire communities were devastated and more than 400,000 hectares were burnt.

It was our state’s darkest day.

This is a look back at how the Bendigo Advertiser captured the events that day, and in the days and weeks that followed.

Bendigo

In Bendigo, one man died, 57 homes and 115 outbuildings were destroyed after a fire was started about 4pm in Maiden Gully – and made its way through our suburbs and dangerously close to the city centre.

Fire crews had been preparing for the worst, as severe heat and wind pushed the CFA fire danger index to its highest level ever forecast.

But nothing prepared them for what was to come.

A fire that started in Bracewell Street quickly became an out-of-control inferno with flames 15-20 metres high travelling through Maiden Gully, West Bendigo, California Gully, Long Gully and towards central Bendigo.

A late wind change redirected its course back towards Eaglehawk Road, where firefighters were able to contain the blaze.

More than 50 people sought refuge at the emergency response centre in Kangaroo Flat, while many others fled to the safety of friends and family while the threat of fire hovered early into Sunday morning.

By the following day, reports of people fleeing burning homes, others staying to defend and triumph over tragedy quickly started filtering through the community.

“In terms of the impact and effect on people’s lives and what these people unfortunately have gone through, and the extent… it’s just a nightmare’ the city’s then director of community well-being, Barry Secombe said.

MORE: BILL Conroy was usually on the other side of the camera.The Advertiser’s former chief photographer had covered countless bushfires over the years. But on Black Saturday, he became part of the story as the Conroys’ 140-year-old home in Happy Valley Road was destroyed by fire. READ:Family history lost

MORE: BENDIGO fire prevention officer Eric Smith says Black Saturday has permanently changed the community’s attitude toward fires. READ: Black Saturday lesson etched in our history

MORE: CAROL Kane wants to move on. Sometimes. Such is the persistent nature of trauma. It creeps up on her every day, despite her best efforts to push the memories and pain deep within. It seeps into her dreams and is her shadow at all other times. Trauma came for Carol on Black Saturday in 2009 – and now she wants to forget. But Carol also wants to keep remembering. READ: When time stands still.

MORE: In a few heart-stopping moments during Black Saturday Brendan Drechsler watched a CFA truck vanish into the flames as the Maiden Gully blaze jumped a road.READ: Sedgwick brigade firefighters recount the battle for Bendigo

Source: www.cfa.vic.gov.au

Source: www.cfa.vic.gov.au

The leathered, charcoaled faces of firefighters were everywhere as strike teams did all they could to save anything in the line of fire.

More than 300 fought to contain the Bendigo inferno, while 289 tackled the Redesdale blaze, along with 46 trucks three bulldozers, four graders and six aircraft.

In February, 2010, two teenagers were charged with lighting the devastating Bendigo fire.

In August, 2011, A Supreme Court jury found the two boys were unfit to stand trial because of their intellectual disabilities.

In November, 2011, the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges against the pair.

A spokesman for the Office of Public Prosecutions said as a result, proceedings would cease.

“The Director of Public Prosecutions John Champion SC has announced a discontinuance in the prosecution of two boys, aged 15 and 16, who were accused of arson causing death and intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire on Black Saturday in which a 47-year- old man died,’’ the spokesman said.

“A Supreme Court jury found in August that the teenagers were unfit to be tried due to their intellectual disabilities. The DPP subsequently considered the state of the evidence and the circumstances of the offenders and came to the view that there was no reasonable prospect of conviction, nor was it in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution.’’

On November 9, 2011, Mick Kane’s wife Carol penned a letter to the community- sharing her thoughts on charges being dropped against the youths accused of starting the fire.

It read:

I have tried desperately to keep out of this bun fight, but after some of yesterday’s insulting letters online and today’s effort by a solicitor I think it’s time some actual facts came out.Firstly, addressing yesterday’s comments by Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre principal solicitor  (“DPP stand justified”) – to say there was not enough evidence for a conviction is only a half truth, as I am sure he would be aware.Unfortunately due to the way the law is at the present time we have been told that the judge would “probably” not allow the majority of evidence to be heard by a jury, including any alleged admissions, because of the accused pair’s low IQs, effectively leaving the prosecution hamstrung.

The accused were not found to be unable to understand lighting a fire was wrong! They were found to be unable to instruct their legal council because they would not have the mental capacity to follow a trial!There is a difference.Secondly, there were a couple of people in the online letters yesterday who were almost hysterical in their efforts to abuse and belittle people for having an opinion other than one supporting the accused and themselves.Everyone is entitled to their opinion without someone trying to make out they are somehow “morally bankrupt” in some way.

If, and I repeat, if, some had actually read what my sister-in-law had written, they would have seen that she wished a change in the law so that people with a low IQ or other intellectual disability could be tried in a court of law with all the evidence to be heard.If they had continued to read, she also said so that if convicted they could get help, as in perhaps a community-based order and therapy, so that something like this never happens again.In other words, treat them with compassion and help them as well as keeping an eye on them.Both of those making the online comments seemed to be espousing the view that no one with a low IQ or intellectual disability should be allowed to be charged.

One said this: “How disgusted I feel to be from Bendigo today after reading such narrow minded comments. Sal...exactly which part of the law is stupid? The part that says we don’t prosecute people with diminished mental capacity? What a disgrace and what a slippery slope you would have us down.” Another said this: “Calling for the law to be changed so intellectually disabled people are forced to face trial is ridiculous, and I don’t think anyone wants to live in a society where this would be acceptable. Next people will be calling to reinstate the death penalty, then we can be just like the USA and kill the intellectually disabled as well.”

So tell me what happens if a 13 or 14-year-old with a low IQ rapes a three-year-old or bashes an 80-year-old grandmother ? We all need to be protected from any individual regardless of mental capacity who commits a crime with such a horrific outcome.

There must be consequences for people’s actions regardless of age, intellect, race or position in society, otherwise we really will be lost.A person died horrendously because of these fires, not to mention the loss hundreds of beloved pets and of people’s homes and possessions. Did whoever lit them want this to happen? No, I do not think that for a second. Did they expect it to turn into the inferno it did? No, I do not believe that either, but did they know lighting the fire itself was wrong?

Now that’s a whole new question, isn’t it? That’s the main question that needs an answer. Just because a person has a low IQ or any form of intellectual disability should not excuse them from facing the same laws as the rest of society, as well as the same rules in court regarding evidence, because that really is a slippery slope to be on!

The difference should be seen in sentencing; a strict community-based order coupled with intense counselling perhaps? For others, a dedicated facility for young mentally-challenged offenders to get them help? All I know is that at the moment – for myself – the legal system is not working.There are no winners in any of this – including the alleged offenders and their families – just survivors.

So what exactly do I want then, I’m sure some of you are asking. The same thing I have always wanted. All I have ever wanted from the start was for whoever was responsible for what happened to look me in the eye and say I’m sorry and mean it, so that maybe I can get the other thing I want – peace.Just two words. Is that really so terribly much to ask?

Redesdale

At Redesdale, a 60km fire that started on Coliban Park Road about 3.11pm, claimed 12 houses, fences, outbuildings and 3000 stock.

Many stayed to protect their homes and stock, while others sought refuge in the Redesdale Town Hall.

CFA operations manager John Deering said at the time “we saw some extraordinary efforts by fire crews and land owners’’ as the day did not allow for normal attack methods to be effective. Intense heat and fierce winds, hampered the efforts of firefighters.

MORE: A Redesdale woman was saved with minutes to spare as fire raced towards her home. READ: Minutes away from fiery death

MORE:  Those on the ground say it was like no fire they had seen before or since. In the months that followed the community of Redesdale pulled together to rebuild the devastated landscape. READ:  Redesdale remembers Black Saturday bushfires

Source: www.cfa.vic.gov.au

Source: www.cfa.vic.gov.au