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Blitzed. Ash Wednesday Fires 1983

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on February 16, 2023

On Feb 21, 1983, I sent a letter to my father in the form of dot points giving an outline of what we went through on the fire tankers in Upper Beaconsfield. 40 years on and it is time for this to be published.

21 February, 1983.

It is now the fifth day since the start of the fires but it seems so much longer. Time and actions have blended into a long blur of strange numbness and emotional turmoil. I can still hear the sirens and wonder if I will ever sleep again.

Wednesday morning was stiflingly hot. The heat and wind hurt my head so I felt a combination of dizziness, sick to my stomach and a curious headache which constricted my throat. I wore my long cotton T-shirt that my brother had sent for my last birthday and I wet myself down throughout the morning to give some degree of coolness. That T-shirt has stayed on me throughout this entire ordeal.

The first sight of fire was as I looked out the kitchen window and the sky had a burnt orange glow. I thought it was another dust storm like the one a few days ago so went back to my work in the kitchen. I was processing tomatoes in my giant vat on the kitchen stove. Hundreds of tomatoes had been peeled and chopped and were boiling away in the stifling kitchen. Our weatherboard house was horrendously hot and the open windows just sent gusts of unbearable heat through the room. I was waiting for Mick who was on his way back from Pakenham. He was late because our panel-van had overheated and he had spent over an hour getting it going and had looked up to see smoke. He raced back to tell me to get ready for a fire.

I turned off the stove, left the dishes in the sink and we raced to put on overalls and boots over what we were already wearing. We wetted ourselves down, grabbed our fire helmets and got in our old panel-van only to find that it wouldn’t start. I headed for the road to try to hitch rides for us to the fire station and stopped a local car. The driver took off while Mick still had his hand on the door. We left without Mick and I looked back to see him standing in the middle of the road. Mick went back to our panel-van and I was taken to the fire brigade in Halford road. I was assigned to the white brigade van with Eric Bumpstead, our fire captain in the drivers seat. A number of other people including Andrew Rowe climbed into the back with me. Meanwhile, Mick had just managed to get our car going and was moments behind us when the van I was in, drove off. He chased us down St. Georges road and parked on a nice clear open front lawn. 

Two days later he returned to retrieve it. He was stopped at the road block near Critchley Parker Reserve by a group of solemn police officers. Asked where he was going and what he was doing, they said no mate, nothing left down there. He described the panel-van and they looked up surprised and said “nothing left except that panel-van”. He walked on, everything was unrecognizable. The houses were rubble, the trees were blackened sticks, a thick coat of ash blanketed everything. And in the middle of the destruction stood our pale blue HR panel van. Completely untouched and looking like it had been dropped from the sky into a lunar landscape. He opened the door, turned the key, it started up and he slowly drove it back past the flashing police vehicles and the grinding front end loader bringing out the mangled remains of the fire trucks for the coroner.  

Back to Wednesday and Eric stopped the fire brigade van near that open front yard where Mick had parked and he clambered in. We all sat cross legged on the floor and headed for the fire front. We went down Brennan ave. but we were unable to get in front of the fire. So it became a race between our vehicles and the wind and fire. Fire has the advantage, it does not need roads to travel like we do.

We headed for Guys Hill, to the end of Luke place where flames could be seen.  Moving rapidly down the road, we turned into a paddock desperately trying to get in front of the fire and following us were a line of other brigade vehicles. I climbed on to my knees and could see through the windscreen as the fire enveloped the hillsides, consuming the bush and moving towards us. The fire spotted ahead. The sky spewed large drops of fire and these start pond like ripples of burning bush in front. Suddenly the fire front hits the van and we rock with the force. There is a roar as burning branches and embers hit the side of the van and we crouch soundlessly in the back. Days later, Mick pointed out the melted parts on the back of this van.

We moved towards the house and found the property owner madly trying to backfill his new electrical trench with a grader blade. Unable to cross, Eric jumped out of the van and threw branches and whatever he can get his hands on into the void. The tractor put one last coat of soil on top and we bump over the trench with a truck and a 4wheel drive behind us. As we start setting up the pumps, the women and children were moved into the house along with the chooks. Eric barks orders.  Get this pump set up on that tank, start this motor, hold a hose here and here and here. Roll out hoses and all the while we can hear fire and the roar of the wind. 

Mick is set up on a platform on top of a 5000gallon concrete tank with a portable pump. Andrew is positioned with a fog nozzle over the farm petrol tanks. Others are positioned with sprays over the house and buildings. I am moving between firefighters straightening hoses, delivering hose nozzles and passing messages. The sound of the wind is deafening. The smoke is so bad that our makeshift bandanas are not helping. There are swirling patterns of fire all along the ground. The stream of water out of our hoses is slowing and it becomes apparent that Mick’s pump is running low on fuel. I volunteer to take the jerry can across the paddock to him. I try to run but find myself unable to breath, so I drop to a crouch and then a crawl, dragging the can of fuel behind. As I move forward, I find myself slipping on things and with my head so close to the ground I can see that it is alive with possums, lizards, snakes, mice and rats. I am crawling towards the fire and they are running from it. 

As I approach Mick, I can see his black figure against the light of the fires and he is crouched over the pump, nursing it along. He sees me through the smoke and I start to hoist the heavy metal can towards him. I can only get it up as high as my shoulder when he leans down and drags it from me. He looks me in the eyes, winks and says a phrase that he often uses. “Don’t panic”. I crawl slightly away and then stop and look back at Mick. He is filling the tank with the pump still running. The wild winds are whipping the fuel into a swirly spray which circles Mick and very little is entering the pump’s fuel tank. I watch and wait for the explosion but it doesn’t come. He drops the jerry can to me and I crawl back towards relative safety. As I reach the other firefighters, one of the men is vomiting into the bushes but there is water now pouring from their hoses and we are back in business. 

Slowly the fire front passes and we are given drinks of water. I go back to Mick on his platform above the water tank and find that he has dipped his helmet in the water to get a drink. He found goldfish in the tank and in his helmet. Drank it anyway and he looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and says “don’t panic”. Then he starts to recite “The boy stood on the burning deck”. I shake my head, climb down and trot back to the others. 

We leave Luke Place sitting on the open back of the old fire brigade vehicle, a 1940’s Dodge Weapons Carrier commonly called the Blitz. All around us the trees are still on fire but the main front has passed. Gripping the upright poles on the back, we bounced down the road. Suddenly Andrew who was sitting opposite me, started whacking me across the head. I turn and give him a punch for good measure. He looks very hurt and explains that my hair was on fire. 

We drive up the Emerald road and see cars stopped all along the sides. We turn into High street and set up at Eric’s apple orchard. It forms a good solid fighting break and we have a water supply. Most of our crew is on Barnes drive across a slight valley from us and we can see their lights through the smoke. Next to them is the Narre Warren and Panton Hills tankers. During breaks I go up to the Bumpstead’s house on the Emerald road where Joyce is handing out cups of orange and lemon cordial to the numerous firefighters who are appearing. I wander up to the veranda and find men lying in lines along the ground. They are blinded by embers and unable to breath because of smoke inhalation. Someone gives me a container of eye drops and I start administering them. A white van with Salvation Army volunteers appears out of the smoke. They hand out cold cans of soft drink and packets of cigarettes. The men who couldn’t breathe reach out for a smoke and I am holding a match to their shaking hands.

Down below the house, we are working an old Ajax crank pump on a bore with 100 feet of hose and refilling the trucks. I am one of Eric’s Angels, a group of women volunteers that he spent months training for exactly this situation. In the dark and with our eyes closed, we can pull apart the pump and fix problems. As the pump sputters and fails, this is exactly what we have to do before the next truck arrives to be filled.  I am working next to one of our neighbours, Barry Medwin. He states that he is worried about his wife and daughter. We talk for a moment and he says “but they will be ok, Kerri will look after her mum”. 12 hours later we are informed that he found their bodies just down the road from our home. 

The noise is tremendous as the winds change again. It is 10 pm and I am working with Bob Trumper and we struggle to keep water up. Mick and I are separated and this leads to anxiety. I lift my head as a noise like a jet airplane hits us and I see walls of flames, fireballs and sheets of burning orange. It engulfs the hillside opposite us on Barnes drive and with it the fire tankers. Someone states that they are all gone. Then through the smoke we see one flashing light and then two and we have hope. From our vantage point it seems that the village of Upper Beaconsfield is now a hill of fire. Our only option is to keep working. Mick appears out of the haze and winks at me and says “don’t panic”. We pack up our tools and climb onto the back of the Blitz and try to move up the Emerald road towards Upper Beaconsfield. The journey is difficult with abandoned cars lining the sides of the road and a solid line of escorted vehicles trying to move down the hill. We are driving against the tide and progress is slow. 

As we crest the hill we see the church on fire and we move towards the fire station. People are everywhere. They are asking for news of their children or neighbours. Cars are pulled up with crying people inside. I see another neighbour and he informs me that our house is gone (incorrect but an obvious assumption). At the station, people are sitting on the ground with their backs against the walls, shocked and distraught. The CFA radio is screaming, so many messages and the airwaves are clogged. It is a cacophony of radio noise 

There is no water in town and no way of putting out the flames. The gas tanks at the General Store go up, one by one like giant roman candles. As we watch, we can see cans of paint in the front window toppling then the window slowly melts, dripping and distorting the light from the flames behind.

A call comes through that Stan is stuck at his farm on Berglund road and has a number of neighbours, all women and children with him. Stan has just had an operation on his hand and was trying to work one handed. His 15year old son was helping him but he needs people. We climb on board the Blitz and attempt to leave the township.  Burnt out cars are littering and blocking the road. Our driver drives off the embankment near the petrol station and we hang on for dear life. Mick leans over and says, to all on board “don’t panic”.  We are out of the township but all we see are burning houses and our headlights show burnt cars lining the road. As we passed the Pine Grove Hotel we can see the lights on in the building. We mistakenly think that the hotel has survived but days later we realise what seemed like lights in the windows were actually the flames through the glass.

We travel down Stoney Creek road and back out onto the Emerald road, passing numerous cars that are still burning or have already burnt. My mind is numb and I believe that there must be bodies in most of them. We pass the VEC and turn down Split Rock road and then onto Berglund when we stop due to an electricity line across the road. It was resting up with the highest point being about 6 foot off the ground. We all duck down and make it under but I think I can hear a crackle of electricity as we pass through. Half a kilometre down the road and we are faced with yet another power line down but this one is resting about 18 inches off the ground. The old Blitz had been working with water all night and in places was still dripping so we just stopped and stared. A ford ute with a farm firefighting set up on board pulled up next to us. The driver ordered all the men off the back and said he would drive over it. If he survived, they were to step over the wire and get back on board. It worked and very carefully, we followed. The ute turned left and we continued to Stan’s house on the outskirts of Upper Beaconsfield.

11 neighbours were sheltering at Stan and Beryl’s house, 5 women and 6 children. A pump was down at the creek and water was trickling up the hill to fill a small plastic swimming pool. This was to be our water source. Again we set up and watched the fire as it danced up and down the hill in front of us. As it got close he sent the women and children down to the dam to shelter in the water. 

We looked out from Berglund road towards Kitchen, Norbury and Leppitt roads. I pinpointed where our house would be and could only see flames. I despaired for our neighbours, for our animals, our dogs and cats and the cattle and horses trapped in the paddocks. Through the noise I thought I could hear screams but maybe it was my imagination. It seemed like the world was on fire and I numbly stood, just watching. 

The fire crept up the hill then roared like a jet furnace only to die back down and leave us waiting. Once, twice, three times and then just as we became complacent it hit like a fire tornado. The roar was deafening and the fire swirled and the trees danced with flames. I felt that our ears would burst from the noise and our clothes would be torn from our bodies. 

Standing in a line, like the cavalry going into battle were the men. With fog nozzles blasting, facing toward flames that appeared 50 feet high, they formed a front along the road protecting the bush where the women and children sheltered in the dam. I was in the background. Equipped only with a couple of metal buckets, some bags and a 16year old boy for help, we fought the flames that had crossed the line. We stomped on embers, bashed spot fires and threw our buckets onto the flaming branches of a cypress tree that stood watch over the little shed full of farm fuel. I looked down at one stage to see wisps of smoke coming off the soles of my boots. I did a new “boot fire dance” and begrudged the damage to my expensive and precious boots.

The fire died back down. The women emerged from the bush. Cups of coffee and tea were handed out and Stan’s wife urged people to try to rest on the mattresses and beds she had set up. I walked and put out spot fires, the night became cold, we were exhausted but I couldn’t sleep. I went looking for Mick and I tripped over two lumps in the middle of the dark road. Asleep, lying on their sides in the centre of Berglund road and still clutching their fog nozzles like precious babies were Mick and David Myers. I gently shook Mick awake and told him “not a good place to sleep”, he mumbled to me, “don’t panic”. I walked, putting out embers in the cold morning air. Suddenly two men went running past. The Towers was on fire and they grabbed buckets and beaters and had it out before anyone could help. Slowly dawn started breaking through. A relief truck was on the way and we prepared to try to go home.

I discovered that Mick could not see and we placed cold compresses over his eyes. I found a truck for us to leave on and borrowed an axe to put down any of our animals left suffering. As we entered Upper Beaconsfield in daylight I saw what is left of town and I start to cry. Smoke was still billowing out of buildings and the community was wandering aimlessly. We said goodbye to the fellow firefighters and found that Mick’s mother and father were in their car near the milkbar. They had our dogs and cats and tell us that when they left our house it was still standing but the fire was upon it. 

They head down the hill and we are told that Salisbury road is impassable in a car. So we run. We run past the hall and past Sugarloaf road. Our run drops to a trot as we carry the axe and exhaustion is getting unbearable. Our trot drops to a walk as we climb the hill.  As we come down past the log cabin, we cannot believe our eyes. The house is standing but all along the southern boundary, is a line of fire. The horses, the cattle and the sheep are all in their respective paddocks but most of the fencing is gone. None appear injured and we place that axe beside the front door, just in case. We return to a run and straight up the driveway to start arranging the gravity fed water system. We fill an old metal rubbish bin from the slow running water off the tap. We carry the bin between us and use old hessian bags as beaters. Slowly we start to put out fires, again and again. Our hessian sacks turn to dust and we raid the linen press for my towels. The oldest towels are used first until we get to the new ones that mum sent. Those too were used and are now burnt and ruined rags. 

In my kitchen I found the remains of that tomato sauce I was making. The heat had caused mould to form on the surface and it had grown so thick that the lid had lifted and a fermented tomato mould was dripping down the side of my massive preserving pan. The stench of rotten tomatoes is overpowering and has permeated the house. There is no time to remove it so it sits on the stovetop and I wonder when I will have time and energy to clean up the mess.

There was no electricity and no phone. All were destroyed by the fires but because we are on the same line that feeds Salisbury House, I had hope that ours would come back early. All day Thursday I checked the phone and the power switches but nothing. Then late on Friday as we had another big outbreak and I was trotting down the driveway to try to flag down a fire truck on the road, I heard the familiar ring of the telephone. I looked across at the house and then back at the road and behind to the fire. I couldn’t help myself, I ran inside and said “Annie speaking can you hold for a moment?” I raced back out and found a passing truck, I sent them up the drive and then ran back to take the call. It was my father calling from America and he was asking if I knew about the fires and was my sister who lived in the city was OK? The overseas news was reporting that all of Melbourne was on fire.

On Saturday morning we found 3 kangaroos and 2 wallabies in our vegie garden. The kangaroos were badly burnt and Mick got out the old shotgun and put them out of their misery. None had babies on board and two were female so I wonder what became of them. The wallabies have small burns but look like they will be OK. I am putting feed out each day but they seem to prefer the tomatoes out of the garden. We watch as they gently pick and examine each one before delicately taking a bite. 

It is now Monday and I still have not slept more than 2 hours at a time. Friends and family have arrived to help but I can’t sleep. We are still putting out fires as trees start to blaze suddenly and without warning. In the distance I hear sirens. Under my overalls, jeans, jumper and coat is that same long cotton T-shirt that I was wearing on Wednesday morning. I have become superstitious about taking it off. Exhaustion is unbearable now and I walk in a stupor as I put out another fire. I wonder will this ever be over? When I close my eyes, I see whirling walls of flames and all I can smell is death and tomatoes and the thick ash that coats everything. 

Mick’s eyes have recovered. The blisters on our hands and feet will heal. I need to get my burnt hair cut but we are so lucky. Why were we spared when our neighbours and friends were not? I feel numbness and grief and a terrible guilt but I recognise this gift of life that we have been given. I see that we must make every day count because it may be our last.

And then Mick winks and says “don’t panic” and I laugh and consider cleaning up that tomato mess in the kitchen.