A Decade On, Black Saturday’s Scars Are Still Raw
Like many Victorians, February 7th, 2009 is a day Ross and Isabella Lausidio will never forget.
They called it Black Saturday, and it was the most devastating natural disaster in Australia’s history. More than 2000 homes were destroyed by fire, and 173 lives were lost.
120 of them were due to the fire which swept through the Lausidios’ home town of Kinglake.
With bushfire bearing down, the town was evacuated, and Ross drove out with his young family. In the darkness as the fire bore down, he lost sight of the car his father was travelling in.
Ross finally discovered his father’s car in the middle of a multi-car pileup.
“I couldn’t get the door open,” Ross relates. “My feet were sticking to the tar because it was close to the front of it. My dad was already passed out. I don’t know if it was smoke or the impact of the... I really don’t know… there was people already across the road at a house and they come and dragged me away.”
“We tried ringing Dad’s phone and he wasn’t picking up,” says Ross’ sister Isabella. “I’m waiting and waiting and stressing, and I knew in my heart something was wrong because my dad would always pick up.”
Ross and Isabella made it to safety, but their father never arrived. After the fires had passed, Ross returned to the crash site.
“There was a gentleman there that was from forensic and he said your dad’s in the back seat, but he’s all burnt away… and that’s when I knew.”
Rick Gili from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was one of those sent to the devastated town to recover the bodies.
“That was terrible… unfortunately we found a family that had perished in the fire,” Rick recalls sadly.
“They were outside of the house. And coincidentally the house was intact, but obviously they panicked. The mother had attempted to take the family, her children into the car, and never made it. Approximately 50 metres away from the house.”
Ten years on, the horror of the day remains raw for all those who were there.
“It probably does more to you later on,” says Bruce Jewell from the Country Fire Authority. “When you start to think back about the decisions you make, you then question those decisions and ask yourself ‘did I make the right decision on the day. Did I do right?’ And you can get a bit caught up in that.
“But I’ve come to accept that the decisions we make are the right ones. Why? Because the crew got home safely. And that’s the most critical thing.”
With over a thousand million dollars’ worth of damage, it would be a huge job to mend the communities broken by Black Saturday.
But in the intervening years, some financial justice has been delivered. In 2014, in the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history, the victims of the Kilmore East-Kinglake fire received a $500-million-dollar payout against power distributer SP AusNet, whose aging power line caused the fire.
And residents of Maryville, where 40 people died on Black Saturday, received a $300 million out-of-court settlement.
And a Royal Commission into the fires came up with 67 recommendations, including a new early warning system.
“So now the community know very early when it’s time to leave or when it’s too late to leave and stay home and shelter,” says Rick. “That to me is probably one of the most important factors that’s been implemented.”
The Lausidios all returned to Kinglake. And five years after Black Saturday, Ross has reopened his father’s restaurant, Cappa Rossi restaurant, which they had lost in the fire.
“I’m glad I’m alive and I'm glad that I helped my family, could go on with my life,” Ross says haltingly. “I miss my dad, but… that’s all I can say.”