LIKE MANY VICTORIANS who lived through that terrifying day, Brendan Condon will never forget Saturday 7 February 2009. Three of his five brothers were first responders – police and fire- fighters. Between them they helped deal with a record-smashing heatwave that led to bushfires – or firestorms – of a kind never seen before in Victoria. ‘Black Saturday’ was one of the most frightening days in the state’s history. ‘It was hell on earth. It was life-changing for every person who experienced it,’ says Brendan.
After 12 years of drought, two months of little or no rain, and two record-breaking heatwaves, Victoria was like a tinderbox. The seventh of February was oven-hot, with Melbourne’s temperature exceeding 30 degrees before 9 a.m. and Hopetoun in the north- west of the state recording 48.8 degrees Celsius later in the day. With very low humidity, the air was dry, almost crackling. In that searing heat, more than 400 individual fires erupted, the majority started by falling or sparking power lines, but some deliberately lit. Ferocious hot winds exceeding 100 kilometres per hour tore through Victoria, propelling embers, burning branches and sparking flames before them. Sounding like roaring thunder trapped in a valley, racing firefronts engulfed anything in their way. Confusion reigned, and communication systems broke down completely. Later, during the bushfires Royal Commission, it emerged that official reports had claimed everyone was alive in Marysville nearly 24 hours after the town had been virtually wiped off the map.
Brendan Condon’s brothers Dan and Dominic are professional firefighters with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in Melbourne. That Saturday, Dan was on duty at Windsor fire station and Dominic was at Sunshine. Like all emergency workers that week, the Condon brothers were exhausted; they’d been working overtime all week attending to heatwave emergencies as power blackouts and ‘brownouts’ cut off air-conditioners, resulting in severe heat stress and the death of many vulnerable people (across south- east Australia, 374 people died in this period). The state morgue was receiving around 50 bodies a day, more than a tripling of the usual number. As a result – in what is believed to be the first time in Victoria’s history – a plan involving hospitals and funeral directors storing bodies had to be activated. The state’s emergency services were stretched to breaking point. Dominic vividly recalls the extreme conditions as ‘something out of [the film] Mad Max’.
Brendan’s latest business initiative is liveatthecape.com.au