REAL LIFE

Rising from the ashes

A decade on from the catastrophic and tragic Black Saturday bushfires, Fern has found happiness at the place where she thought she’d lost it all 

Everything was turned to dust.
Everything was turned to dust.
Source: Supplied

Here Fern Miller, 37, tells the story in her own words. 

Tossing the squeaky toy across the once lush green hills, my pup Venus bounded after it.

Drought-stricken for years, our farmland had been reduced to tufts of brown weeds and red dirt.

My dad David, mum Marilyn, sister Grace, then 31, brothers, Nyall, 28, Earle, 23, and I prayed for rain to fill our empty dams.

Four generations of Mum’s family had lived in our farm house, Moorylla Park. The home was nestled right on top of a hill, and from the verandah I could see our acreage below, surrounded by the rolling mountains.  

It was February 7, 2009. Glancing at the smoke on the horizon, I tossed the toy once more.  

‘Hopefully that doesn’t come our way,’ I muttered.

Working with Parks Victoria, Dad often helped the local fire brigade and had dealt with bushfires before, so I was sure he could handle it if it did.

Snapping photos of 
the looming black cloud, 
I wanted to show Mum when she came home.

She was battling cancer and after a bad reaction to the heat, she’d had to stay in hospital overnight.

When Dad, Nyall and Earle got home, we all decided to put our fire plan into action.

Just in case, I thought.

Slipping into our fire overalls, we put on gloves and masks. Then we headed around the property, opening up the animal paddocks.

So they can run if they need to, I thought.

My Family
My Family (Source: Supplied)

Carried with the wind, embers started to blow in, creating small spot fires near our home.

The boys wandered around stamping out the flames while Dad got the hoses ready.

But then he rushed over.

‘The fire has jumped containment lines. It’s coming!’ he said.

Looking at the hills, everything turned red as flames engulfed the mature gums. Within minutes, embers were shooting through the air igniting the dry land.

For every spot fire we extinguished, five more sparked.

As the thick smoke rolled in, it turned day into night.

The wind blew a hellish fury around me as the heat intensified.

And as I took in the fire’s wrath, the hairs on my arms stood up.

We’re surrounded, I thought, looking as the spot fires combined, creating a fire wall around our property.

‘RUN!’ Dad screamed from somewhere in the thick black smoke.

With no time to look for our pets or even each other, all I could do was run.

My feet pounded the ground as I tore towards the direction of the cars.

‘To the dam!’ Dad bellowed as we got in his car.

Driving as fast as I could, with Dad in the passenger seat, I sped through the paddock towards the only dam that had 
water in it – our neighbours’.

My heart pounded as I bounced around, but when I spotted my brothers in another car in front, a wave of relief washed over me.

They’re okay, I thought, fighting back tears.

At the dam, we flung open the doors and raced towards the water.

Stripping off our boots, we threw our wallets and phones on the bank.

Then all four of us dove into the water, swimming towards the middle.

Weighed down by our overalls in the murky water, we peeled them off.

Will we boil to death? I fretted, looking at my family.

Treading water, we watched as the wind picked up the flames, encouraging them towards us.

Dad wasn’t a strong swimmer so my brothers held him up.

With them struggling to keep Dad afloat, we made the decision to go to the edge where we could stand.

By now, the flames were surrounding us and the roar of the wind was deafening.

We’re sitting ducks, I thought, starting to panic.

As flames licked their heels, a deer and a troop of kangaroos bounded towards us, taking refuge in the cool dam.

That’s when the storm front hit.

Still treading water, hot embers shot through 
the air and thick smoke burnt my eyes.

Every time I took a breath, my lungs felt like searing crepe paper.

In the midst of it all, I lost sight of my family and my heart sank.

‘Fern!’ I heard them yell from the bank.

This is how I am going to die, I thought as my dad’s screams for me pierced through the fire storm.

Then instinct kicked in – I had to make it to my family.

Diving under water, I held my breath and kicked as hard as I could.

Coming up, the smoke quickly filled my lungs again as I took in 
a breath for another dive.

Reaching 
the bank, I found Dad’s arm and he pulled me under a wet woollen blanket with 
the others.

Every 30 seconds we ducked under water, extinguishing the embers that landed on our heads.

My mind raced thinking about our family and friends on neighbouring properties.

Please let them have got 
out, I prayed. 

After an hour, the wind died down and the flames disappeared.

‘Well, I’m a bit cold now,’ Nyall joked.

Laughing, we all started to shiver.

‘I don’t think you’ll make it to the pub,’ I teased him.

When the darkness lifted and daylight returned, we peeked out of the blanket.

A sea of black was all that was left.

The once-tall green gums were reduced to sticks surrounded by miles of ash.

It was like an atomic bomb had been dropped and nothing was recognisable.

The trees were blackened.
The trees were blackened. (Source: Supplied)

Just then, I saw my car coming down the hill, my uncle and neighbour inside.

Racing towards each other, we all embraced.

‘We hid behind a water tank,’ they told us.

We walked through where our home once stood but nothing was left.

Hearing a rustle behind the tank, I broke down as I ran towards two of my horses, amazed they’d survived.

But as fires raged on in the distance it still wasn’t safe.

‘We have to keep moving,’ Dad said.

Everything was turned to dust.
Everything was turned to dust. (Source: Supplied)

At our neighbour’s mudbrick home, which still stood, everyone exchanged stories of how they’d made it.

We also made an emotional call to Mum.

‘We’re all okay,’ Nyall said.

Trying to close my eyes that night, I could hear the fires still burning in the distance…

The next morning I saw the front page of the newspaper.

Our whole town was turned to ash, houses were gutted and people had lost their lives.

That’s the day I started crying, and I didn’t stop for months.

Every day for weeks, I attended funerals. 

Eventually, we slowly began to rebuild our lives.

Six months later, the light returned to my eyes when Chris walked into my life. 

Dad even decided to rebuild the farm for Mum while she was recovering.  

‘I can never live here again,’ I told Dad.

I was just too traumatised. So, I moved in with Chris.

Sadly, that December, just months after we’d lost the farm, we lost my precious mum too.

A month later, we stood 
on the verandah of the new Moorylla Park, the home 
my parents were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in.

Opening the urn, the now gentle wind carried Mum’s ashes, resting them under her favourite towering gum, The Mother Tree.

I just want to forget the year that took so many lives, I cried. 

Two years later, Chris and I wed.

Soon after, we brought two cheeky children into the world, Logan, now six, and Alana, two.

Last year, Dad was struggling to look after the huge property and was thinking of putting it up for sale. But I couldn’t stand the thought of the farm not being in our family.

‘For Mum,’ I told Dad, moving my family in.

I have never been happier.
I have never been happier. (Source: Supplied.)

Now I stand on our verandah watching our 
little ones run through 
the paddocks just as six generations before them had.

‘I’m so unbelievably happy,’ I said, embracing Chris.

Now 10 years on, it still feels like yesterday the fires engulfed everything I loved and took so many lives from our town.

It took a while to find joy but now, back at the farm the happy memories are triumphing over the bad.

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