Eye of the firestorm

DARYL Hull lay in the mud of the little island in the middle of Marysville’s lake, staring at the ducks.
Over his head, he could see fire leaping through trees.
Little fingers of orange flame crept through the grass on the banks, too, as if the fire were a living thing although it also looked like an animation, he said.
It seemed so unreal that at one point he literally reached for a remote control.
“I just wanted to change the channel,” he told the Bushfires Royal Commission this week.
“As this thing kept getting bigger, I kept thinking, ‘I want to get away from this’.”
Hull, 58, did get away from it. But he also stayed close enough to film the fire that razed Marysville and killed 34 of its residents.
With startling presence of mind, he clung to his video camera throughout most of his ordeal. His compelling footage of the fire and its aftermath was this week shown to the commission.
He told his tale calmly, with a catch in his voice only twice: once when talking of his relief to see police lights after the fire had passed, and once when talking about the town’s devastation.
Hull’s family has been part of the town for three generations, ever since his grandfather built a guesthouse there in the 1920s. Hull used to work as a pianist in the local guesthouses but on Black Saturday was helping out as a kitchenhand at a cafe.
He did not leave the kitchen until 4.30pm, when he saw a pall of smoke over the town. At 5.15pm, on another break, he grabbed his cameras and began filming. He soon became alarmed and went to warn his employers. They all kept checking the sky, unsure whether they should be worried.
He said he heard a siren go off twice but then it was cut off.
“The fact of the siren stopping said to me, ‘Oh, false alarm, maybe there’s not a problem’,” he said.
But he knew to gather at the local oval in case of emergency. There, people were milling around in confusion.
“We were all sort of biting our nails at that point thinking, ‘What on earth do we do? Where do we go? What is happening? How bad is this?’,” he said.
Police announced they were evacuating people in a convoy. Hull would not go. He feared dying in a car at the side of the road.
“I’d said to various people, you know, if ever there was any trouble or a fire . . . that the lake would be the perfect place to get into. I’ve always been very fond of that little body of water,” Hull said.
“The ducks on the lake have always amused me enormously and they all gather in under that foliage on the lake at night. And I kind of thought, ‘Well, good enough for them, good enough for me’.”
He walked boldly into the water, only to find himself suddenly up to his neck.
“So I have got one digital camera underwater and automatically my right hand thrusting skywards to hold the video camera out of the water thinking, ‘What did I think I was doing?’,” he said.
Hull scrambled back to the edge and put the cameras under some ferns before swimming over to the far side of the island, where he submerged his body in the water and the mud.
He stayed, he thinks, for half an hour, before the island caught alight: “The smoke above me had descended and was sitting almost above my head . . . and it was . . . frothing and bubbling, it almost looked like tar, it was black and very, very dense and quite terrifying,” he said.
He got back into the lake and it gave him what he needed: shelter from a hail of embers.
“I put my hand out and there was the perfect branch in the shape of an umbrella, already wet, just at my arm’s length. I don’t know how that happened but I thanked whatever power had put it there,” Hull said.
“Over the lake it was very dense and very powerful and it had the sense of, as though it was drawing breath . . . and then . . . the entire sky seemed to catch fire and then it absolutely rained embers, just an absolute meteor shower of embers.”
Hull said at one point blue flames encircled the lake, and trees moved “as if they had their own current”.
He told the commission he heard two cars reach the water’s edge and the sounds of human voices, including a child.
But then there was an explosion, followed by silence.
“I don’t know what happened to those people,” he said.
An hour later, he retrieved his video and began filming. He walked down streets and filmed blazing landmarks: the kindergarten, a church where only its sign was left standing. The Age
“We were all sort of biting our nails at that point thinking, ‘What on earth do we do? Where do we go? What is happening? How bad is this?’ ”

First published in the Newcastle Herald.