Australian fires: Return to Marysville

Up to one in five residents died in a village at the centre of the bushfires in Victoria. Yesterday, the survivors went back. Kathy Marks reports
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It was the journey home that they fervently desired, yet dreaded. Exactly a week after the Victorian bushfires obliterated the picturesque village of Marysville, survivors were allowed back to view the destruction yesterday – and one of the first sights to greet them in the desolate streets was a refrigerated truck being used as a morgue.

Marysville, a mountain resort north-east of Melbourne, popular with honeymooners and nature lovers, is at the centre of Victoria's "Black Saturday" conflagration. Police are still retrieving bodies from the ruins of houses, but they believe that up to 100 residents – one in five of the population – perished when a fireball roared through. That would push the death toll from last weekend's fires, Australia's worst peacetime disaster for more than a century, to nearly 300. It currently stands at 181.

Survivors who climbed on to the buses in Buxton, seven miles away, knew their houses no longer existed, and neither did the village they called home. They had seen photographs of the devastation, but nothing had prepared them for the reality: just a dozen buildings still standing, the remainder reduced to piles of twisted metal and rubble, and the eerie silence of the ravaged streets.

Before setting off, Ashraf Doos, who owned a patisserie in Marysville, voiced his determination to rebuild his business and family life. "I may have lost my recipes, but I haven't lost the heart or the passion to cook," he declared. On his return, a despairing Mr Doos said: "There's no more Marysville. I cannot describe it – everything is on the ground."

He added: "I feel awful. It was an emotional day. My life was there; I lost our life. I've never seen anything like this in my life, not even in the movies. Where I built my patisserie, there is a pile of gravel, with just a sign hanging there. The school is gone ... My kids were crying in the bus."

The sombre trip, which was undertaken by about 300 people, under police escort, lasted only an hour. Residents, who were supported by counsellors and chaplains, were not permitted to get off the buses, or to take photographs. With many bodies yet to be recovered and identified, police did not want them wandering around. Besides, the whole of Marysville is a crime scene. Detectives believe the fire in that area was one of two set by arsonists, and forensic officers are still combing the wreckage for evidence.

Tomorrow a 39-year-old man who was arrested last Friday will appear in court, charged with arson and murder in relation to a fire that killed 21 people near the town of Churchill. The man, who is being held at a secret location, with his identity suppressed for his own safety, is said to be in a fragile mental state.

The Marysville fire, which also wiped out the village of Narbethong, is believed to have started at a disused sawmill, near a popular camping and swimming spot. Police yesterday appealed to anyone who was in the area last Saturday to come forward and speak to them. Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood, a member of the force conducting Australia's biggest arson investigation, said: "We believe the mill site is ground zero. This was not an attempt to burn down the mill, but a deliberate attempt to create a bushfire on a grand scale."

The disaster zone, covering 20 or so villages and townships dotted across a swath of forested and agricultural land, has yielded daily tales of loss. Although Marysville was worst hit, several other places, including Kinglake, to the west, were virtually annihilated. Police revealed yesterday that the bodies of eight adults were found in one Kinglake house, huddled protectively around a baby's corpse.

The man appointed to spearhead the recovery effort, Major-General John Cantwell, said after touring the area that the destruction ranked "alongside some of the worst I've seen in combat".

Marysville residents, many of whom have been sleeping in a community hall in nearby Alexandra, would not disagree. Some sobbed as the buses travelled slowly through their village. Patricia Beggs said afterwards: "To go back was so difficult, but it's also really important. It makes you accept it happened; it's like burying the dead. The town just has to live on in our memories." Harley Ronalds, 17, whose grandfather died in the fire, said: "The only time I really fell apart was when I saw Grandpa's house. That destroyed me. I don't know how to take it."

The fireballs that engulfed the eucalyptus-covered hills of Victoria's High Country burnt 1,500 square miles of land and destroyed more than 1,800 houses in a matter of hours. Yesterday firefighters were still dealing with a dozen blazes, but milder weather was making the job easier and, as of last night, no communities were directly threatened.

The state premier, John Brumby, has announced a Royal Commission, which will examine the logistics of a bushfire early-warning system, and review Victoria's long-standing advice to residents to evacuate early or stay and defend their property. Black Saturday's death toll – and, in particular, the number of people who perished in their cars while trying to flee at the last minute – has cast serious doubt on that policy, in place since the "Ash Wednesday" bushfires of 1983 killed 75 people in southern Australia.

This latest tragedy in one quiet corner of rural Victoria has touched the whole nation, with Australians donating more than A$75m (£34m) to an emergency appeal. Even in Marysville, there were glimmers of good news last week. On Wednesday, an elderly couple were found alive after four days spent sheltering in their house.