BY ROSLYN JAGUAR
PHOTOS BY NICKI CONNOLLY
February 2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. Police Life spoke to two police officers in Marysville and Kinglake about the devastation of the bushfires and the renewal and recovery of their communities.
PART II: LEADING SENIOR CONSTABLE PETER COLLYER, MARYSVILLE [Pictured above at Gallipoli Oval, Marysville]:
In the days after devastating bushfires tore through Marysville in the scorching summer of 2009, Leading Senor Constable Peter Collyer made a telling prediction.
“I said at the time that it would take 10 years for Marysville to recover,” he said.
Änd you might say, well, it’s pretty much back to normal now – but it’s certainly different.
Picturesque Marysville, in the foothills of the Yarra Valley, was one of the hardest hit towns when bushfires of a terrifying scale and ferocity tore across Victoria, claiming 173 lives.
[This figure – 173 lives lost – does not include the suicide figure from PTSD, relationship breakdowns, loss of children or loved ones, in years following Black Saturday].
Thirty-five people died in Marysville alone, and the town was all but levelled.
Almost a decade on, new shops and homes line the streets and native bush once again covers the surrounding hills.
Marysville Police Station, reduced to ashes in the inferno, has been rebuilt and stands prominently in the main street.
But some of the less visible scars remain.
“Some people won’t ever come back because it’s not the same,” Ldg Sen. Const. Collyer said.
“Everything now becomes pre-fires or post-fires, it’s like there’s a big mark in history.”
Ldg Sen Const Collyer was rostered on for a 6pm shift at Marysville on 7 February 2009 – known since as Black Saturday.
His memories of the day are vivid.
He recalls running into Leading Constable Ian Thompson, who was on duty at the time, at the roadhouse at nearby Buxton.
It was around lunchtime, and the pair chatted about smoke coming over the hills, then attributed to a huge blaze at Kilmore, about 100 kilometres away.
“When I left the roadhouse, I drove up a hill in Buxton to get a clearer view,” Ldg Sen. Const. Collyer said.
“There was a lot of smoke blowing this way and you could see it had travelled 100 kilometres or more as it was all wispy.
“But some of the smoke, lower down to the hill line was much more defined.
“I made a quip that if I didn’t know better, that (fire) was just the other side of the hill – and that’s where it was.
Sensing conditions had taken a turn for the worse, Ldg Sen Const Collyer sent his family from their home in Buxton to Alexandra, 30 kilometres to the north.
He followed on his motorbike to Alexandra Police Station and hitched a ride with two colleagues back to Marysville.
The trio, along with Woods Point’s Leading Senior Constable Ken Dwight, headed to Marysville’s Gallipoli Oval, where gut instinct told them residents would congregate.
Huge gum trees surround the oval were already ablaze when the four officers arrived, and they began herding vehicles out of town towards Alexandra.
Thier swift action to evacuate about 200 people from the oval earned the officers Victoria Police Valour Awards.
When burning debris started landing around the police car, Ldg Sen. Const. Collyer and Ldg Const. Dwight followed the convoy towards Alexandra, stopping several times to warn residents of the impending danger.
The next morning Ldg Sen. Const. Collyer got a lift with a council worker back to Marysville and began the grim task of searching properties and locating those who had not survived the firestorm.
“It was like a war zone. There were only 11 houses in Marysville that didn’t burn,” he said.
A decade after the fire, Ldg Sen. Const. Collyer still works at Marysville and lives comfortably with the many changes it bought about.
“We can’t change the past,” he said. “So while the fire was sad and terrible, you’ve got to accept it because it happened.
“That’s how I’ve gotten through it, I think.
“The trees are still here, the flowers still bloom.
“Marysville was a pretty town before the fires – and it still is.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
Victoria Police Wellbeing Services: (03) 9247 3344 (For Victoria Police employees and immediate family members only).
This article was originally published in Police Life (Summer 2019 edition) and re-published in the public interest.
Jaguar, R 2019, ‘After The Ashes’, Police Life, January 2019, pp. 18-19.