Community gathers to reflect

February 16, 2023 BY

The change in wind direction on Ash Wednesday pushed the fire north-east along the coast and destroyed communities such as Fairhaven (seen here) and Aireys Inlet. Photo: KEITH CECIL FAMILY COLLECTION

THE community has gathered in one of the local towns most affected by Ash Wednesday to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the devastating fires.

The Surf Coast Shire hosted Ash Wednesday Remembered in the Aireys Inlet Community Centre yesterday (Thursday, February 16) – exactly four decades after the blaze swept through some Otways towns and left destruction in its wake.

Opening with a Wadawurrung Welcome to Country, the event provided a space for survivors and others to reflect on events of Ash Wednesday, and community and personal recoveries.

The two-hour event included a panel discussion but was mostly a space for survivors and others to come together in memory and tribute, with static displays providing some touchpoints.

One of the panellists was Pat Hutchison, publican of the Aireys Hotel on that day in 1983.

“The anniversary brings back memories, of course, more so every 10 years,” he said.

The Aireys Hotel was razed in the busfires but Mr Hutchison was luckily not there that day, as he was “paying his fish bill” in Lorne and visiting friends earlier in the afternoon.

“My friend Henry shrugged it off at the time; he said ‘oh, we’ve had these fires before, it’ll burn itself out’,” he said.

“We pulled three elderly ladies out of Lorne – they were outside their house watching the spot fires, and then a house blew up about 200 yards from the back of their place and they couldn’t get in the back of my ute quick enough.

“When the wind turned south-west, it saved Lorne, but we didn’t know what was happening in Aireys Inlet.”

Mr Hutchison, who was 37 at the time, stayed in Lorne overnight and asked for news at the police station the next day.

“They couldn’t get through to Aireys Inlet, so they phoned through to Geelong, and Geelong just said ‘Aireys Inlet Hotel: non-existent’,” he said.

“So they drove me back from there, and it was like being on the moon… it was just white, stumps of naturally big timbers and white coverage on the ground; that’s how bad it was.

“When we got back, there were only four old chimneys standing, the rest had been decimated.”

Mr Hutchison said he resolved to stick around and get back into business as soon as possible, setting up a big marquee to act as a temporary pub, followed by a tin shed that opened at Easter, and constructing a proper brick building on a slab that opened on Boxing Day the same year.

“I was single at the time, but I was in there for the fight – I’d only been in the pub for seven months.

“Everyone helped one another, even the old blokes.”

The other panellists yesterday were Bill Bubb, a long-time CFA volunteer who was Anglesea brigade captain on Ash Wednesday; Sharon Rawlings, who grew up at Pennyroyal and now lives at Fairhaven, and reflected on the often unseen role women played in emergencies; and disaster recovery psychologist Dr Rob Gordon.

Jamie Mackenzie, an acclaimed national expert in bushfire and emergency response and leadership, was the moderator.