Firefighter Leon Armistead will never forget his first glimpse of the Ash Wednesday bushfire which savaged Surf Coast communities and thousands of hectares of Otways bush.
The Lorne CFA Second Lieutenant was investigating first reports of a fire heading their way from Deans Marsh on a blistering hot northerly day made for an inferno.
Driving solo in the brigade LandCruiser through the bush he came around a corner on Big Hill Track up behind Lorne.
“And there’s these two great big – I’ll never forget it in my life, ever – these two great big white gum trees, and the track went between them and all I saw was this red wall and two white gum trees. It was like a painting,” Leon said.
“I’d driven from the sea to the fire. We didn’t really know what the story was, anything really, and this wall of fire is coming at me. A complete wall of fire.”
Leon was facing a living nightmare escalating with furious intensity as it scythed across the Otways, consuming abundant tinder-dry bush on the wings of a ferocious northerly wind.
By the time he had made his escape back to coast, the fire had beaten him there, spotting kilometres ahead.
As it consumed houses in Lorne and townspeople took refuge on the beach and pier, an aggressive south-westerly change transformed its flank into an enormous firestorm front which then swept up the Otways and Surf Coast through Big Hill, Eastern View, Moggs Creek, Fairhaven and Aireys Inlet and Anglesea.
Along the way it torched 41,000 hectares, tragically claimed three lives – Ilie Mierla on Deans Marsh-Lorne Road, Colin Barton at Fairhaven and Lloyd Venables at Aireys Inlet – consumed 729 homes, 53 other buildings, countless wildlife, livestock and kilometres of fencing.
Firefighters and communities were powerless and awestruck in its path.
“No person, nothing ever in the world, could do anything to stop it when it’s like that,” Leon Armistead said.
“You’re at its mercy.”
Ash Wednesday gouged a livid black scar across the Surf Coast region, part of widespread loss of life and destruction across Victoria and South Australia.
Thursday 16 February 2023 will mark 40 years since the catastrophe – and 40 years of recovery – and Surf Coast Shire Council will acknowledge the significant anniversary with an Ash Wednesday Remembered community event.
The event will include a panel discussion but primarily aim to provide a space for survivors and others to come together in memory and tribute, with static displays providing some touchpoints.
Light lunch will be provided. Support will be available for people who might encounter uncomfortable memories or emotions.
Ash Wednesday Remembered will be from 12pm-2pm in the community centre at Aireys Inlet, one of the communities worst affected by the fire.
“When it came, it came that hard you were running for your life and salvaging what you could,” Aireys Inlet CFA second lieutenant of the day Howard Hughes recalled.
“The smoke started to blow, you could hear it like tanks coming up the hill and it was like a war zone with gas cylinders going off.
“I’m telling ya, entire house roofs were flying around.”
Howard and his wife Jenny and three kids preserved their lives but lost their family home.
In Anglesea, Barrabool Shire president of the day Pat Hickford recalls being one of many residents forced to take refuge on the beach as the fire front hit the town.
“We’d be looking up and you could see houses exploding all over the place, and you kept thinking to yourself ‘I wonder whether that was ours, I wonder whether that was ours?” she said.
“You couldn’t quite tell because of the smoke and whatever.”
Her husband John remembers having walked up Noble Street after the fire had been through.
“I looked over the hill at the top of my place at the back street there … and I said to myself if that’s hell I’ve seen it. It was just smouldering bits and pieces, black as ink with these bits of fire.”
Heather and Max Smith’s property on Pennyroyal Road was in the path of the blaze as it accelerated from Deans Marsh.
Max was responding to the rapidly escalating emergency at a neighbouring property where he worked, and their three girls were at school but Heather and son Heath, 3, were at home and forced to take refuge.
“I got a phone call about 10 to three telling me there was a fire heading towards our place and I said yes I can see that. I just had our three year-old son with me,” Heather said.
“I was outside trying to get the hose to work but being the drought the house dam had dried up and there was no water.
“So he and I headed down the back to a big dam and hopped in and I sort of played games with him. There were trees all along the creek close to this dam and once the fire got into the trees it just took off.
“Then it hit the bush and just exploded and I thought, that’s it.”
People can register to attend Ash Wednesday Remembered via surfcoast.vic.gov.au/AshWednesday