Ten years ago today, the Black Saturday bushfires raged across Victoria, claiming the lives of 173 people, injuring 414, and burning 450, 000 hectares of land. They remain, to this day, the most devastating bushfires Australia has ever seen.
With the passing of ten years, we are challenged to reflect on the events that transpired, the lives that were lost and those that were forever altered by this traumatic natural disaster. But how do we begin to understand, to process this devastation? One way, is through words.
In recent years, we have seen more and more literature surfacing about the Black Saturday bushfires, the most recent being Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist (2018), Justin D’Ath’s 47 Degrees (2019), and Ella Holcombe’s The House on the Mountain (2019). These stories, works of non-fiction and fiction, are attempts to unpack, unravel, and understand not only what happened ten years ago, but also the emotions that surfaced afterwards, the thoughts that arose after enduring a tragedy of such scale.
But what impact do these books have? Are they healing and cathartic, or painful reminders? For Chloe Hooper, writing about the Black Saturday bushfires was a way of unpacking the truth of not only the fires, but everything that happened beforehand – the circumstances that influenced the fire, and the motivations of the arsonist who started them.
‘In the wake of Black Saturday, I was stunned anyone could deliberately light what was essentially a fire storm,’ said Hooper. ‘I wanted to know who becomes an arsonist, and why.’
This idea of ‘circling closer to the truth,’ of trying to understand why and how such devastation occurred, is a common comfort that books offer us. They reveal truths, they offer answers, and sometimes in these answers, we find solace. ‘It’s hard to separate the pleasures of reading, ‘ Chloe admitted, ‘but the best (non-fiction) writing offers us a chance to learn more about our world, and that’s invaluable.’
Fiction also offers comfort. Both Justin D’Ath and Ella Holcombe experienced first-hand the devastation of the Black Saturday bushfires, and have drawn on these experiences to create wonderful works of fiction for children, each of which carry messages about safety, survival and recovery.
Ella Holcombe’s The House on the Mountain is a stunning picture book that recounts her memories of the Black Saturday fires, but in the hopes of telling a different story:
‘On 7 February 2009, there was an enormous bushfire. One hundred and seventy-three people died, and thousands lost loved ones, homes, pets, and possessions. That day became known as Black Saturday. My brothers and I lost our mum and dad, our home, and our beautiful (dog) Brittany that day. I could have written that story, but I knew it too well already. Instead I wanted to capture something else – something about continuity, about movement and regrowth.’
Fiction is a powerful medium that can be heavily inspired by real-life events, allowing people to process their own emotions and feelings, whilst offering others the opportunity to empathise with stories and experiences that are foreign to them.
‘I wanted this story to be about more than loss.’ Ella says in her author notes. ‘Because family and home are bigger than that.’