Julie's Story - Marysville 7 February 2009

As Victoria's fire raged, residents said it would be okay

JULIE Bell escaped the bushfire in a convoy of cars. As the cars crawled through smoke her children prayed but the determined spirit of her fellow bushfire refugees helped her cope.

'I bustle my daughter into the car asking her: "Hear that? What's that?"

It's a huge roaring sound.

Eyes huge, she says, "That's the fire".

In the car, reverse, we're on the open road, Grandma and Bob not far behind. Mum later tells me that as she got into their car, she could feel the updraft. Mum was in the 1969 bushfires. She says, "Once you have smelt a bushfire, you never forget it".

We are part of a convoy of about 50 cars driving out of Marysville in the smoke with our lights on. Safety in numbers. The girls yell, "We can see the fire!" On the mountains to the left, we see the flames. My eldest girl, aged 10, later wrote, "I thought all of Australia would catch on fire. It sounded like a thousand lions roaring." The girls start praying, I find their voices and requests of heaven comforting - it keeps us all calm.

We get to Alex and follow cars to Alexandra High School. There's a car with three massive paintings sticking out of the boot. Somehow it is this that finally makes me realise this is serious. Cats in cat boxes. Dogs on leads, all strangely docile, as if they sense the vibe. Cars parked every which way, new ones roaring up every few moments. The smoke is thick, like dense fog of a dirty yellow colour. You can hardly see a few yards up the street. We zig-zag through fire refugees into the hall and write our names on Red Cross registration paper. No power. People perch wherever they can. We have towels soaked in buckets of water - Mum's idea. I had thought, "Surely we won't be in a situation in which we actually need these . . ." Now we thankfully wrap them round our heads.

It's getting darker. I make nests for the girls on the floor. Sometimes when it's hard to breathe, I feel panic rise and quickly swallow it, telling myself I'm OK, this is only momentary that we can live through.

How frail we are. Yet everyone is calm and helping each other. Together we're strong. People are talking, a few hugging each other and sharing tears. A woman next to us says she does not know if her husband is alive.

There are a few torches in the gloom, enough to help us pick our way to the toilets. Water bottles are passed out. It's stinking hot, oppressively hot. The doors to the hall are all open - it is too hot to close them. All eyes are eyes are staring into the smoky gloom in the direction of the hills on fire.

The SES bring a generator and now we have light. I sense people's anxiety levels drop as light filters through the smoky room. Evacuees from Marysville are realising they probably do not have homes anymore. Yet there is a still a sense that surely we're exaggerating, being drama queens?

When the smoke clears, it won't be that bad - right? It's unthinkable that anyone might have lost loved ones as well as homes.'

Black Saturday: Stories of love, loss and courage from the Victorian Bushfires is available wherever good books are sold from April 9, priced $24.99. All proceeds from the book (after GST) will be donated to the Salvation Army Bushfire Appeal

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