Mt Lubra fire - a decade on

TOM Guthrie will never forget the sight of the massive wall of flames coming over the hill and realising there was nothing he could do to fight it.

Only five per cent of his 1300-hectare property, Thermopylae, was untouched by the Mt Lubra fire on January 22, 2006. 

The 3.2-hectare Grampians Estate vineyard he ran with his wife Sarah was all but destroyed as fire swept across the property.

“From my point of view, there are many things I’ll never forget,” Mr Guthrie said.

“The first sight of the massive wall of flames coming over the hill and realising at that point there was nothing you could do to fight it, the relief we were all okay and our home was safe when the fire passed, the devastation the fire left behind, especially to the livestock, the gut-wrenching days of destroying and burying wounded stock, the absolutely wonderful generosity of people to support us and others effected and the physical and mental toll it took on us all over the ensuing 12 months to re-establish the farm and finally, having roughly completed the fencing program by the following spring and summer entered a nasty drought.”

Lightning started the Mt Lubra fire. Crews battled for two days before strong north-westerly winds drove the flames towards the Wannon River on the morning of January 22 – a day of total fire ban.

By early afternoon, the fire had crossed the Major Mitchell Plateau and was heading towards Willaura. Meanwhile, spot fires were causing havoc at locations including Watgania Gap, Mafeking and Yarram Park.

Flame heights in excess of 20 metres were seen and by 4pm the fire was more than 40 kilometres from its starting point. 

More than 20,000 hectares of land, including farmland at Mafeking, was burnt by the fast-moving bushfire.

At 5pm, with the fire barely one kilometre from Willaura, a wind change pushed the flames north, towards Moyston and Pomonal.

By dawn on January 23 the fire had burned 87,000 hectares, and Halls Gap was under threat. On January 24 the fire cut the Stawell-Halls Gap Road. Pomonal was again under threat and the fire reached the Venus Baths area and spreads towards Lake Wartook.

There were now more than 700 firefighters battling the bushfire, including volunteers from NSW and Tasmania. Australia Day was another total fire ban day.

The fire had burned 116,000 hectares and more than 1000 firefighters were trying to prevent the bushfire spreading into Victoria Valley. By 6pm the fire had moved up the slope from Mackey’s Peak to the Pinnacle and Halls Gap was under ember attack.

At 6.30pm, the heavens opened and a light smattering of rain started to tumble from the sky.

Scattered showers throughout January 27 kept the fire largely contained. The worst was over.

The fire had burned about 130,000 hectares, with an estimated 47 per cent of the Grampians National Park affected.

Two people died in the fire. Father and son Malcolm and Zeke Wilson died when they crashed into a tree on the Moyston-Pomonal Road and were overcome by the smoke, heat and flames of the bushfire.

Total farmland burned was about 45,000 hectares, with 41 residences lost and another 24 declared uninhabitable. More than 230 farm buildings were also lost as well as 1973 kilometres of fencing.

A total of 62,704 sheep were killed by the fire. Pasture losses were close to 37,000 hectares and 10,252 tonnes of hay was burned.

Two books were written after the fire.

Beyond the Smoke was published in March 2007 following a grant from Parks Victoria with assistance from Ararat Rural City and Northern Grampians Shire councils, the Uniting Church and Grampians Community Health.

It examined both the Mt Lubra fire and Deep Lead fire, which burned several weeks earlier.

Willaura Recollects was a compilation of stories from residents affected by the Mt Lubra fire. It was put together by a steering committee with donations from the Uniting Church, Ararat Rural City and the Willaura Rural Fire Brigade.

As well as the damage to their vineyard, Tom and Sarah Guthrie lost 3500 sheep, 50 kilometres of fencing, numerous farm buildings and 3000 bales of hay.

After the fire, eight vineyards donated grapes to the Guthries. Grampians Estate’s award-winning 2006 Black Sunday Friends Shiraz collection was dedicated to those vineyards and the many community groups that volunteered their time and resources to help the Guthries rebuild.

“As the subsequent 2009 Kinglake fires would highlight, the most important thing is for you, your family and other people fighting the fire is to stay safe and live to fight another day,” Mr Guthrie said.

“We have always felt we were very fortunate to have achieved that.

“With the unbelievable support of people from all walks of life, we have got on with life.”