Building back after fire
AFTER the flames died down on Ash Wednesday 40 years ago, people in the Otways and across Victoria tried to put back together what was left of not only their homes but also their towns and communities.
Locally, the fire on February 16, 1983 tore through Lorne, Big Hill, Eastern View, Moggs Creek, Fairhaven and Aireys Inlet and Anglesea, killing three people, torching 41,000 hectares and devastating 729 homes, 53 other buildings, and countless wildlife and livestock.
“There was shock, heartache, anger, blame and bewilderment,” Forest Fire Management Victoria notes of the aftermath in its official summary of Ash Wednesday.
“This was followed by months of clean-up and relief works, with years of recovery and rebuilding of lives, homes and communities.”
Precious family homes and beloved institutions alike all had to be rebuilt, along with kilometres of fencing.
St Aidan’s Church in Aireys Inlet was completely destroyed in the fires, but church services were continued in one of the rooms of the newly constructed school.
The church site in Bambra Road was sold and land purchased in a more prominent position on the Great Ocean Road, opposite the general store, where it was rebuilt and still stands today.
The famous Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch at Eastern View was built in 1939 but did not survive Ash Wednesday and was reconstructed – one of its several rebuildings over the years.
According to Emergency Management Australia (now part of the National Emergency Management Agency), nearly $180 million in insurance claims was paid out across Victoria and South Australia in 1983 with a total estimated cost of more than $400 million.
Writing to mark the 25th anniversary of Ash Wednesday, Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre chief executive officer Gary Morgan said the Ash Wednesday fires taught communities a hard lesson about how they could and should prepare for bushfires; a lesson that had only been properly defined in the past couple of decades.
“Research has demonstrated that a properly prepared house, garden and residents are capable of putting up a responsible defence to a bushfire attack.
“In 1983, with the loss of almost 2,500 houses, the principle that ‘houses save people and people save houses’ was not well understood. Today, it is the guiding principle for bushfire survival that continues to be reinforced each spring and summer.
“As a result of considerable research, backed by anecdotal evidence, we know that most people killed in bushfires are those who flee at the last moment.
“Australia has become the first country in the world to actively promote the ‘Stay and Defend your Property or Go Early’ approach by residents in fire-prone areas.”
The state response in communities to bushfires and other natural disasters has also evolved over time.
In the wake of the 2019-2020 bushfires, the Victorian government established Bushfire Recovery Victoria as a new permanent and dedicated agency to work directly with affected local towns, including an $86 million communities recovery package with up to $75,000 for farmers. The agency is now known as Emergency Recovery Victoria.