Behind the story

Gigantic walls of fire wiped out entire streets in seconds

AAP’s National Chief of Staff Paul Mulvey was Melbourne bureau chief 10 years ago when the Black Saturday bushfires claimed 173 lives. AAP has already published a package of feature stories talking to survivors reflecting on the disaster and its impacts a decade later.

Here, Paul recalls how the bureau covered Australia’s deadliest natural disaster ...

A little before 10pm on February 7, 2009, reporter Jeff Turnbull breathlessly filed copy over the phone back to the Melbourne office. The death toll from the Victorian bushfires that day had reached 14 and could rise as high as 40, deputy police commissioner Kieran Walshe had told reporters. Even at that stage, few people knew what was really unfolding in the hills an hour or so north of Melbourne.

Fire fighters battle bushfires burning at the Bunyip State Forest near the townbship of Tonimbuk, Victoria, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009. Bushfires across Victoria have claimed the lives of at least 181 people. AAP Image/Andrew Brownbill

Australia's deadliest bushfires killed 173 people - most of whom had already been burnt alive before Mr Walshe made his grave announcement. All week, authorities warned the state was heading for the worst fire conditions it had ever experienced.

Early on Saturday, reporter Simon Mossman and photographer Andy Brownbill were dispatched to Bunyip in Gippsland where the first fire had already begun threatening properties.
Reporters in the office filed on property damage, burns and the ongoing threats as more than 50 fires sprung up in every part of the state as temperatures of 48 degrees were fanned by 100 km/h winds.

Australia's deadliest bushfires killed 173 people

We filed our second wrap just after 10pm with news of the 14 deaths and the fears of more to come.
From Sunday, staff came in on days off, worked whatever hours were necessary and travelled as far as required for the rest of the week.
On Sunday, Greg Roberts went to Kinglake, which a dazed resident told him "looks like Hiroshima". Others told him stories of losing friends and of a neighbour who turned around to see his car ablaze with his kids inside.

As Greg drove up the scorched hill littered with burnt-out cars and dead animals, he was stopped while emergency services pulled charred bodies out of wrecked cars ahead of him.
Catherine Best went to Bendigo where the fire had destroyed many homes and was still threatening, while roads were blocked into Marysville which, we had been told, had one building left standing.
Stories were emerging of 70-metre high walls of flame taking seconds to wipe out entire streets.

Katie Bradford was in Kangaroo Ground with prime minister Kevin Rudd who told reporters and locals "Hell has unleashed its fury on Victoria."
Reporters in the office filed on the relief effort, police claims of arson and the impact the fires were having on utilities, hospitals, schools and roads, as well as filing regular updates on the ongoing threats as dozens of fires still raged.

"Hell has unleashed its fury on Victoria."

And so it went for the next seven days. We had 11 reporters rotating between the office and the fire zones, while late stop Jamie Duncan was lucky if he got out of the office before dawn.

Reporters on the road tried to get into destroyed towns Marysville, Kinglake, Flowerdale and Strathewen and areas still under threat like Healesville. Otherwise, they based themselves at staging grounds at Yea, Whittlesea and Alexandra speaking to survivors and authorities.
Just outside Healesville, Jeff witnessed at close hand the tragedy of the fires when three sisters waiting near a roadblock were told by their husbands their parents and disabled brother had been killed.

A Country Fire Authority (CFA) fire truck is pictured in front of flames while fighting a bushfire at the Bunyip State Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009. Authorities have issued urgent fire warnings to towns near a bushfire burning out of control east of Melbourne. AAP Image/Andrew Brownbill

While the Kinglake region was devastated, the fire had also killed 11 people in Gippsland. On the Tuesday, Michelle Draper and Andy Brownbill were the first media into Callignee and filed the earliest stories and photos from the Churchill blaze.

Greg, Cath and Simon spent days on the road, finding stories and accommodation where they could. They also filed their own photos, some of which were picked up internationally to complement those taken by snappers Julian Smith and Raoul Weigat.

At the end of a trying week, we were finally able to get some breathing space as the fires died down after hundreds of stories, factboxes and snapshots were filed on the biggest event in which all of us in the Melbourne bureau had ever been involved.

AAP Paul Mulvey

Click here to view Black Saturday images galleries on AAP Photos 

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