Ash Wednesday survivors recall the horror 30 years later

THIRTY years of horror memories were revived as Ash Wednesday bushfire survivors at an anniversary ceremony on Saturday recalled the day that blackened the south-west.

Hundreds of families were affected by fires that started at Cudgee and Ballangeich and quickly grew to infernos that swept through the region in a few hours

Nine lives were lost, 872 buildings destroyed and 500 square kilometres of land scorched. 

Other parts of the state and South Australia were also hit by horrific fires on February 12, 1983.

More than 100 south-west people gathered at Panmure Recreation Reserve for a moving ceremony which featured speeches by Moyne Shire mayor Cr Jim Doukas and Framlingham fire brigade’s Colin Lynch on their views of the disaster.

A commemmorative booklet and DVD produced by six Moyne youth councillors was officially launched. 

Their project features interviews with survivors.

Two of them, Margaret Parsons and John Mahony, told The Standard that Ash Wednesday was etched on their memories.

Mrs Parsons and her husband, Brian, lost their home and farm buildings at Nullawarre while Mr Mahony was incident controller at Cudgee co-ordinating dozens of crews grappling with fast-moving fire fronts.

“It was a terrible eerie day,” Mrs Parsons recalled.

“Brian and I were at home till about 12.30pm when he smelt smoke and went to check it out.

“The next time I saw him was about an hour later as he was herding our cows towards the dairy shed for safety. 

“The hair on the back of his neck was singed.

“Then he went off with the fire brigades.

“I stayed home as long as I could before fleeing and went to the Nullawarre store where there were lots of other people and school kids whose parents were in town.

“When we went back home the next day everything was gone except the dairy shed and the cows.

“However, we lost all our young stock which had been in an outpaddock at Cudgee. “Fire came through twice that day. The second time was after it reached Boggy Creek and the wind changed pushing it all back — that’s when our house went up.”

Their son Kevin, who now runs the farm, was 13 and attending school in Warrnambool.

He spent the night with his grandparents in Warrnambool not knowing if his parents had survived.

“Kevin went through hell ’til Brian’s sister told him the good news next morning,” Mrs Parsons said.

The Parsons spent the next three months with neighbours and took another 18 months to rebuild their home.

“There was no counselling back then and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it,” Mrs Parsons said.

“But once you’ve been in a fire like this it lives with you forever.

“There were 435 families down this way affected by the fires.

“I’m nearly 71 and still occasionally wake up in the night with the vivid memories as if I was there.”

Mr Mahony, who was a lieutenant with the Cudgee brigade, spent five successive days co-ordinating fire fighting and mopping up.

He criss-crossed the district with hectic radio conversations with CFA truck crews directing them as the Cudgee outbreak headed towards the coast.

“About an hour later it was through to Naringal and we realised we couldn’t pull it up,” he said.

“When the Mortlake district fire started and some crews were needed there, there weren’t enough resources.

“It was a horrid day.

“I got home about 2.30am the next morning and was up again about 6am.

“By Friday afternoon I knew I was very tired and by Sunday afternoon I had a migraine, took a tablet and got some sleep.”

Mr Mahony retired last year as Cudgee brigade captain and is still first deputy group officer with the Hopkins Curdies group.

Back in 1983 they had one VHF radio fitted to the control vehicle — now there are two radios and two channels.

“It was absolutely flat stick — a huge job by everyone involved,” he said.

“A lot of blokes did a lot of brave things that day and I knew some who lost their lives.

“There was a three to four-kilometre front in the first wave of the fire and when the wind changed it became a 25-30km front running in the other direction.

“Yesterday’s anniversary ceremony brought back a lot of memories of the day and the hardships afterwards.”

pcollins@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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