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Frances Atkinson – February 10, 2011
Kinglake Photo: Angela Wylie

Kinglake Photo: Angela Wylie

TWO years on and the Black Saturday statistics continue to shock: 173 people died and more than 2000 houses were destroyed.

On February 7, 2009, the temperature reached 46.4 degrees in Melbourne, the highest recorded in an Australian capital city. Winds reaching 100 kilometres an hour fanned a fire front reaching a height of 100 metres. But other statistics tell another story. When the 400 fires throughout the state finally burnt out, 90 per cent of Lake Mountain’s Leadbeater’s possums were dead, 300-year-old mountain ash forests were left blackened and more than 400,000 hectares had burnt.

Out of the Ashes, by Melbourne director-writer Dione Gilmour and narrated by William McInnes, is an unexpectedly optimistic look at how, in the 12 months following the fires, the forests and wildlife found ways to survive, regenerate and, in some instances, thrive.

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Gilmour says the idea was there from the start. “I was sitting in my house in St Kilda listening to the radio about the fires in Victoria and the floods in Queensland and Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country popped into my head,” she says. “As a natural-history filmmaker, I wanted to ask, ‘What will happen afterwards?’ ”

Gilmour ran the ABC’s now-defunct natural history unit from 1988, commissioning programs for the next 20 years. The professional contacts and friendships she developed meant pulling a crew together wasn’t difficult.

“I’ve known most of the people who worked on Out of the Ashes for decades,” she says. One of those was award-winning cinematographer David Parer, who captured some of the documentary’s most impressive scenes, including a wedge-tailed eagle gliding the thermals above a blackened landscape and a lyrebird displaying its majestic plumage.

Gilmour and her team went to Kinglake four weeks after the fires and interviewed locals who recounted dramatic escapes. She also interviewed ecologists and wildlife carers who spent months nursing animals, including badly burnt koalas, joeys and an echidna with a raw, weeping back where its quills melted like candles. But thousands of tree-top dwellers were not so lucky.

On the day of the fires, Kinglake locals Colin Bucknell, his partner Sonja Armstrong and their son Sam remained in their burning mudbrick house until the roof threatened to fall in. They made a dash for a creek on their property, only to find it was barely running. As they huddled down, Colin noticed two lyrebirds gazing up at him. “They seemed to welcome us. They were sitting tight and waiting and when we left, they left, too.”

Another story of Mother Nature’s tenacity is told by local Brooke Hawthorne-Smith. “At first light the day after the fires, a lone magpie was singing his song. That’s what made me cry because I thought, ‘Thank god there’s one left’.”

Parer said filming scenes directly after the fire made an impression. “When the bush burns, in the days after, it’s like the morning after a funeral,” he says. “There’s a silence. But within weeks, epicormic shoots appeared on the eucalypts, which start to photosynthesise and allow the crown to revegetate and the tree to keep growing. That’s just remarkable.”

Nine months after Black Saturday, with the first rains, the giant mountain ash began “their own rebirth”, as Gilmour says. Seeds opened and fell on clear ground, where they got a boost of nutrients from the ash.

Gilmour has footage of an incredulous Professor David Lindenmayer, who has been studying the mountain ash for 25 years, as he notices epicormic shoots sprouting from the upper branches. “That is not supposed to happen in these trees,” Professor Lindenmayer says. “It’s fantastic. This giant will live on.”

Another set of remarkable images involved time-lapse footage of the bush’s regeneration. Shot by Cameron Davies, who had set up a camera for a nine-month period, the footage shows the uniform black of the forest floor transform into a carpet of lurid green as fire moss flourishes along with different types of fungi.

“I remember seeing the forest for the first time after the fires,” Gilmour says, “and it was absolutely, utterly black. I was looking at these trees, thinking they were dead, but here they stand today.”

Out of the Ashes screens on ABC1 at 7.30pm on Sunday.