When a fast-moving bushfire was bearing down on a small Victorian seaside village on Christmas Day, hundreds of people fled, but one family decided to stay.The blaze would destroy a third of the homes at Wye River and others would be lost at nearby Separation Creek, which lies on the Great Ocean Road, south-west of Melbourne.
While volunteer firefighter Andrew Hack was on the frontline of the emergency effort, his wife Karen Hogg and their two children, 11-year-old Juna and his eight-year-old sister Pema, took shelter within the concrete walls of the local surf club.
Wearing masks and with towels stuffed under the doors to keep out the smoke, the family waited for hours for the danger to finally pass.
“The kids were amazing,” Karen told “My son sat and read his book through it. My daughter – we sang Christmas carols at one point. She performed her song she was meant to sing at the carols for us all. We played games.”
“Looking out the window and seeing the flames and smoke, and the houses around us as they were going down was very scary. It was like watching it on a TV screen.”
A plan for safety
But why did they stay when most of their neighbours and hundreds of holidaymakers heeded the official advice to evacuate?
“We always felt confident we would be safe within the town,” Karen explained. “The township protection plan was all about being able to confidently protect the surf club and hopefully the CFA (Country Fire Authority) station, the shop and the pub as well.
“We never wanted to be caught up in the tangle of traffic on the roads. I know there is a tiny road in and out. I drive it all the time. I never wanted to experience that frenzy of having to be driving fast out of a town with fire and the smoke.”
Despite the severe conditions, Mr Hack, a first lieutenant in the CFA, was confident his wife and children would be safe. Had a code red, or catastrophic, fire warning been issued – the highest in Victoria – then he would have told them to leave.
“No doubt it has been traumatic for them, as it would be if they had been sitting at their grandmother’s place and watching it unfold on the TV.
“If anything we consider it would have been more traumatic for them because they’d be worrying about me and about our house,” he said.
“It is a great thing for them when they return to school in a few weeks’ time, to go back and be able to share that experience and… educate other kids.”
Early warnings sent out through TV and radio stations, social media and apps have made Australians far more alert to bushfire dangers. Although lives were lost in recent outbreaks in Western Australia, there were no fatalities in the blaze that forced the closure of the Great Ocean Road for a fortnight.
‘Leave and live’
The swift dissemination of detailed information was recommended after the Black Saturday bushfires north of Melbourne in February 2009 that killed 173 people, while fundamental advice to homeowners has also changed.
No longer do the authorities encourage residents to remain and try to protect their properties.
“Leave and live,” said Frank Buchanan, the mayor of the Colac-Otway Shire. “There was an expectation that people may be able to defend some of their homes and that is quite possible, but on a day that is, say, 45C and [the wind] is blowing from the north [at] probably 70-80kms an hour, when you get any sort of fuel that is dry it is a firestorm.
“It is not going to be stopped by a fire tanker or anything else, so it is better to leave and live. You can go back and pick up the pieces later.”
Nursing a “terrible hangover”, Wye River General Store venue manager Shaun McKinlay was preparing a Christmas Day lunch of prawns and crab for his staff when the evacuation alert came through on his FireReady app. They all left soon afterwards.
“When we were heading south away from the town we could actually see huge plumes of smoke coming down the coast towards us. That evening we could see from about 30kms away a burning glow of red in the sky, which was pretty scary because from where we were it looked like there probably wouldn’t be a town left anymore,” he explained.
The fire in the Otway Ranges is moving away from the coast into more rugged terrain. It is expected to burn for weeks and water-bombing aircraft continue to fly over Wye River, supporting hundreds of firefighters on the ground. The flames might only be finally extinguished by heavy rainfall over winter.
The tourists are returning to this beautiful, yet vulnerable, part of the Australian coast. The dense, dry bushland that meets the sea will always carry a hint of menace, especially on very hot and windy days. The state of Victoria is one of the world’s most fire-prone regions, and living with the danger is a way of life.
Karen Hogg’s family and home survived the inferno on the Great Ocean Road unscathed, and she has no regrets about staying at the height of the emergency.
“Wye River is our life. Our children were born here and will live here forever, so we really never wanted to leave it when it was in trouble,” she said.