February 7,2009 is etched on my mind forever as it would be for most Victorians. That was the day when our state burned and many people’s lives changed forever. The tenth anniversary just passed, reminded us of the loss and the recovery. We all remember what we did that day. For me, I attended a wedding and the 47-degree Celsius heat and ferocity of the wind felt sinister as smoke blanketed our city and state. Within the next few days, we would learn that 179 people and countless animals had died, numerous property destroyed and for some, an experience too horrible to ever fully recover from.
“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”
Chloe Hooper writes about one of those fires – the one near Churchill deliberately lit which killed forty people. Hooper takes us inside the police investigation and the capture of the man responsible for the fire’s beginning.
In particular, she gives us some insight into the man himself who is autistic and how he, his family and the local community deals with the consequences of his actions. The legal process is explored and at times you can’t help but feel sorry for everyone involved having to relive what happened. The man was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in jail.
But this story prompted me to wonder about the other fires; the ones where the Royal Commission identified electricity lines as the cause of sparks and subsequent loss of life. Surely you would think those responsible would also be in jail. Sadly, they are not. A Royal Commission, lawsuits and class actions are what’s left of accountability. And although Hooper doesn’t mention it, what hits home for me in stark contrast is this: that this one man is an easier target to punish than a corporation whose negligence is responsible for even more deaths and destruction. Yes, there was a bucket of money paid out but money doesn’t exonerate or replace lives lost.
It’s sad and it’s tragic but it has now become part of our history and Hooper has done a magnificent job to pull it all together. It’s tight and fast paced and if you didn’t know that it happened, you could almost think it was all fiction. But it’s not. Try and read it if you can.