Worst of Days: Inside the Black Saturday firestorm

A taste of Worst of Days

Edited extract from Chapter One: Fire

Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise all that they touched… some men of science hold the view that the fires generated and were preceded by inflammable gases which became alight.

Leonard Stretton, report of the Royal Commission into the Black Friday Bushfires, 1939


A gumnut fell from the sky. It was charred.

Worst of Days – Karen KissaneIt clattered on to the roof where Gemma Jones was clearing the last few leaves from her gutters. She picked it up – it was smaller than her fingernail, so tiny to be carrying such portent – and thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ She turned to the two friends helping her and said, ‘Get out of here now.’

They had all seen the smoke plume in the distance; thick, grey, growing. For hours it seemed to be travelling in a direction that was no threat to them but the gumnut warned of immediate danger. Shane Sparkes had broken away from his own family’s preparations to help Jones put up aluminium shutters to shield her windows. He was worried about her. She was a slightly built woman and she lived alone. But his loyalty had to be to his wife and two small children, who were waiting at home at the other end of the road. He said, ‘I’m gone…..’

After [her friends] left, Jones grabbed the house phone and walked outside, looking down the hill for any sign of smoke or flame. She could see nothing but her sense of urgency soared. Jones didn’t realise she was about to be caught in a pincer movement of flame.

Life flipped into fast-forward.

She heard a roar like hundreds of jet planes. Anyone who has lived in the bush knows what that means. If they haven’t heard it themselves, they have heard the stories of those who have. The wild winds unleashed by fire have their own primal roar, spawning another level of racket when they thrash leaves and twigs and branches till they rattle. Then, as flames burst the cells of plants, thousands of crackling explosions join the cacophony. The bigger the fire, the more deafening its orchestra of destruction. Jones knew that this one must be a monster.

Jones had been trained both in law and in fire-fighting to handle hot problems in a cool way. A corner of her mind was stocked with her professional forensic tools: logic, analysis, the ability to detach. Another corner was stocked with knowledge of fire safety and fire behaviour. She waited calmly for the ember attack that she knew must come. She planned to douse any that landed on her house.

What arrived was far beyond what she had imagined. She was struck by a massive hailstorm of firebrands; a black and red blizzard of glowing coals. They came not from the fire she had been watching to the south but from the west. The air was dizzy with them. they showered her like gunshots. Suddenly, just metres from her, the world exploded into flame. A massive, roaring wall of heat and light sprang from nowhere and towered over her….

Australian book of the year 2010

Worst of Days won the 2010 Colin Roderick Award for book of the year on a topic that deals with an aspect of Australian life (awarded in 2011). In their citation the judges said, “In an exceptionally strong field, Worst of Days proved outstanding. It brings vividly alive the events of 7 February 2009 (Black Saturday), when bushfires of unprecedented character and ferocity devastated the Kinglake and surrounding areas north of Melbourne. Allowing survivors and firefighters to tell their own stories in their own words, drawing on the history and science of bushfires and pinpointing failures in policy and warning systems, Karen Kissane constructs a seamless and enthralling story out of bewilderingly complex reality. The book is instructive, heartbreaking, inspiring, haunting and impossible to put down – a masterpiece of lucid narrative and structure.”

The award will be presented at the foundation’s annual dinner in Townsville on Thursday 10 November 2011.

The prize, which includes $10,000 and the H. T. Priestley Memorial medial, is presented each year by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies at Queensland’s James Cook University for the best book published in Australia that deals with any aspect of Australian life. The award covers fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Previous winners include Tom Kenneally, Don Watson, Peter Carey, Christopher Koch, David Malouf, Ruth Park, Thea Astley and Robert Dessaix.

Worst of Days is available as an e-book from iTunes and hard copies can be ordered through Australian bookstores.

An essay by Tom Griffiths on the Black Saturday fires and the meanings authors have found in them: http://inside.org.au/from-the-ashes/

The Colin Roderick Award: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Roderick_Award#Award_winners