'So Raw It Feels Like Yesterday': Black Saturday Remembered

A lot can change in a decade.

But grief doesn't run to a timetable.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s 10 years... but on the other hand, it sometimes feels so raw that it feels like yesterday,” said Dr Kathy Rowe.

She lost her husband Ken on Black Saturday.

He’d been at their holiday house in Marysville, trying to make it fireproof.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and guests at a memorial service at the Melbourne Exhibition Building for the 10 Year Anniversary of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires on Monday (Image: AAP)

Dr Rowe’s story of resilience, recovery and remembrance rang out across Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building.

Hundreds had gathered to mark the tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday a memorial deliberately held three days early out of respect for the bereaved.

Because time doesn’t heal all wounds.

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Victoria lost 173 lives on February 7, 2009, 40,000 hectares of land was scorched and 78 communities were impacted.

It was a weather disaster on a scale never witnessed in Australia before.

“We had a string of record-breaking hot days, well over 40 degrees, coming on the back of decades of drought,” said CFA Chief Officer Steve Warrington.

The remains of St. Andrew's church are scattered after it was destroyed by fire in the community of Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne on February 9, 2009. (Image: AAP)

And Victoria burned.

CFA volunteer Cliff Overton was among the first fire crews to drive through some of the worst hit areas.

What he saw will never leave him.

“I was looking at ground zero -- just black and white -- the total absence of colour and the total absence of sound, not a living thing to be heard and not a green thing to be seen,” he told 10 News First.

Since the fires, he has struggled with PTSD and the feeling of guilt.

“So many of us feel so guilty about what happened.

“I couldn’t have changed anything that happened that day. If I had the magic wand I would have stopped the fire and warned everybody, but we just don’t have that.

“I still feel it, but it doesn’t stop me from still trying to help,” Mr Overton said.

A Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighter has a drink as he takes a break while fighting a bushfire at the Bunyip State Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, Saturday, Feb. 07, 2009. (Image: AAP)

As the angelic voice of high school student Olivia Brereton rang out with the National Anthem.

The memorial heard of Australia’s “golden soil and wealth for toil…”

But the bushfires turned the earth black and it’s still recovering, too.

“About two-thirds of the species who used to visit our place have returned.. and I look forward to the rest,” said Dr Rowe.

Strathewen Primary School was razed in the blaze.

Its records and equipment all destroyed.

“The impact of such a major disaster on our community and our little school was unimaginable,” said principal Jane Hayward.

“Our students had lived through and witnessed a major disaster -- it just surrounded them.

“Their little lives were turned upside down.”

But packed lunches were made by volunteers and items were donated and now the school has risen from its ashes.

Jane Hayward the Principal of Strathewen Primary school at a memorial service at the Melbourne Exhibition Building for the 10 Year Anniversary of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires on Monday, February 4, 2019. (Image: AAP)

“From the most challenging of times have come some incredible things.. we have seen the strength of human spirit and resilience,” Ms Hayward said.

At times, the memorial was punctuated by the sounds of two didgeridoos as speakers and dignitaries pinned sprigs of wattle to a map of Victoria.

John Brumby, who was the Premier in 2009, bowed not only at the map.. but also turned to bow at the bereaved.

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And when the names of the dead scrolled down giant screens to the sounds of a local choir. It took more than three minutes.

“I hope whether you’re here or you’re further away you know of the warmth and affection that surrounds you,” said the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau.

Figures can never tell us about the unique lives of those we lost of their achievements, their hopes and their dreams.

“Figures alone will never tell us that the houses lost, were in fact homes.. homes that sheltered not only families and possessions, but the precious mementoes and memories of family life.

“Our reflection is one of profound sadness at the immense losses suffered. It’s also of deep gratitude for the bravery, kindness and generosity shown by so many then, and since,” she said.

“To those who will always grieve, our hearts will not forget you.”

To mark the anniversary, Melbourne Museum has created an exhibition called “From The Heart: Remembering the 2009 Victorian Bushfires”.

A car and house destroyed by fire in Narbethong, north of Melbourne, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. (Image: AAP)

It’s filled with the sounds of the bush, recorded live during a trip to Kinglake.

And it has been expertly curated to make sure it’s a reflection on the catastrophic events of 2009 with a focus on resilience and remembrance.

“It was really important to us not to re-traumatise people,” curator Catherine Forge told 10 News First.

“We didn’t want to fill the museum with cases of burnt objects and things that are really still quite evocative.”

There are just two pieces of damaged property on display from the museum's extensive "Victorian Bushfire's Collection".

And they were donated by a survivor.

“We are really sensitive to how difficult some of this material is for people and there's very few images which will distress people,” said senior curator Deb Tout-Smith.

Those who attended the memorial were invited to view the exhibition before it opened to the public today.

An act of respect to the hundreds of people whose struggle doesn't end with a milestone anniversary.

Their lives have changed forever