Photojournalist: Australia’s Worst Bushfires

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Award winning photojournalist Jason South talks about photographing Australians as they suffered through the worst bushfires on record.

PHOTOGRILL: This photo was made following the Black Saturday bushfires which left 173 people dead. Tell us some of your experience of the fires.

PHOTOGRAPHER: Two days previously I was assigned to shoot a small bushfire in the Bunyip forrest in Gippsland as a preview to the Perfect storm of fire conditions that were predicted for that next day.  Department of Sustainability and Environment rangers managed the fire as best they could in very difficult terrain. I asked one of the firefighters, if the conditions were as bad as predicted would they be able to contain this fire? Once I assured him that I didn’t write the story and he wasn’t going to be quoted he said to me  “Not a shit show in hell. Not even with ten helicopters.” That was enough for me to call my boss and say that I would work on my day off, the next day, and head back to Gippsland to watch this fire. What a day. One I will never forget.

Police road blocks make it very hard to cover bush-fires in Victoria , even for trained and accredited photographers. The default setting is not to let you in, so you need to be in early. Which is exactly what I did, I got in before the police blocked the roads and found a great farmhouse to sit and wait. It was on a high point with no fuel around it and lots of water.  A journalist joined me on the hill with the farmers defending the property.

We sat on that hill for most of the day watching the fire in the forest , it got hotter and hotter with a massive wind. It really was a perfect storm.  Helicopters-water bombed the fire all day but the wind finally got the flames in its grip and fire just leapt from the forest onto flat farmland . Suddenly it was on the run and really moving too.  Helicopters tried to get ahead of the spot fires and the sky went dark with smoke. We were safe on the hill. The awesome fire rolled past scouring all in its path. It threw  a 30 foot fire ball rolling like a bowling ball across the field. Later in the day the wind turned and sent fire back towards us. With it came a strong southerly wind and a change in conditions. It had so much energy that it created a storm, with lightning and massive thunder which i am told is a pyrocumulous.

PHOTOGRILL: Did you make photos of the fires on Black Saturday?

PHOTOGRAPHER: We were asked to stay at the farm by the Country Fire Authority until after the the fire had passed which caused great anxiety at the time but in hindsight I am very pleased. We chased the tail of the fire and shot the destruction it had left. it was getting quite late and nearing dark . Considering the immense day the pictures I had did not do it justice.  As I drove back to Melbourne listening to the radio it became more evident that it had been a horrific day all over the state and many people had died. The rest is well documented and burned into the psyche of most Australians now.

That was the start of a month on the road travelling to the burnt towns of Victoria and finding the stories of the survivors and the dead. The Age arranged to send several teams to the different fire affected areas. I was paired with reporter Selma Milovnovic for several weeks. Each team tried to focus on a particular area to avoid crossover and duplication. Teams often ended up in the same town overnight which was a great way to debrief over a few beers with people who knew what you were going through. It was really not easy listening to so many of the horrific stories of how people coped on that day. The realisation of how their lives were changed forever was often heartbreaking.

PHOTOGRILL: Where was the photograph of Rob Greig and his motorbike made?

PHOTOGRAPHER: One of the towns which was in our patch was Flowerdale. A tiny little picturesque town that sits in a valley with a river running through it. Not much more than a shop and a pub. We had heard on the radio that the army were involved in property searching in the town and we organised to meet them to do a story which gave us access into the otherwise closed town. Flowerdale had done it really tough. Their own CFA had been called to another town not too far away so when the fire turned back towards Flowerdale there weren’t many firefighting resources left in town, so the locals quickly formed their own Firefighting group. “Flowerdale Freelance Firefighters” was my nickname for them.  Water tankers on the backs of several utes with three or four blokes on each. They worked all night racing from property to property that they thought they could save. I was blown away by these blokes and the spirit in this forgotten town.

PHOTOGRILL: How did you find Rob?

PHOTOGRAPHER: The picture came by pure chance. While driving to find a slim patch of mobile phone coverage I recognised one of the Flowerdale Freelance Firefighters coming out of a shed high on a hill above town and stopped for a chat. He told me he was checking on “Robs” bike. I asked if I could have a look . As soon as I saw the bike I asked if he could get Rob back so I could do a portrait with him. “No sweat ” was the reply and five minutes and a cold beer later Rob turns up. Tattoos, bandanna and a little lap dog to boot. He walked straight up and sat on what was his pride and joy. His burnt out Harley Davidson was the realisation of a life long dream which had only been bought a few months earlier.

It was beautiful light and a great character. This big burly bloke with his little dog and a beer.  I banged a few frames off as we stood there talking about the day. It was great to have a laugh finally after so much misery. I have kept in touch every now and again with Rob . He has a new Harley and a new shed and a huge print of the photo that I gave him for his pool room.

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