As the third anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires draws near, it is timely to acknowledge MCC 50-year member Jim Usher’s contribution to a book that has raised $100,000 for CFA brigades involved in the firefight.
The book, Footsteps in the Ash, is a record of the devastation of the St Andrews and Strathewen communities where 37 people died and 117 homes were lost in the intense February 2009 fires.
Jim and co-author Mac Gudgeon interviewed 80 survivors and 65 firefighters to compile the 276 pages of compelling stories and photographs.
Both are long-term residents of St Andrews and were close to becoming victims of the fires themselves. Flames were less than a kilometre from their homes when a wind change swept the fires in a new direction, at the same time killing many of their friends including actor Reg Evans and his artist partner Angela Brunton.
They worked on the interviews and photographs for 10 months, in the process becoming a listening post for the trauma of locals, many of whom are still working through the tragic events of that day. The book was launched by Julia Gillard when she was Deputy Prime Minister and the then Premier of Victoria John Brumby.
“To this day, I can’t believe how most of those we interviewed survived,” Jim said. “Their stories are harrowing and a tribute to the capacity of the human survival spirit, but there were also many miracles that day.
“People survived fighting the fires in their homes, or sheltering in dams and swimming pools, in pipes under the road, in culverts and even wombat holes. Two families, one with a young baby, buried themselves in the mud of Diamond Creek.
“They were saved when a sudden gush of water seemingly came from nowhere, dousing the flames from burning embers that had crashed around them. When they emerged from under the shelter of a blanket, two lyrebirds were peering curiously at them,” Jim said.
He also told of another story where a mother of two young girls stood on a kitchen table and screamed at the fire as it burst through the ceiling: “You are not going to take my children.”
Production of the book was a full-scale community effort. Everyone who worked on it did so gratis, enabling the entire proceeds from the 5000 copies sold to be distributed to the St Andrews and Arthurs Creek/Strathewen CFAs, with contributions to other brigades that helped fight the fires in the two communities.
Jim joined the MCC in 1957 and received his 50-year membership four years ago. He began a 60-year career in journalism when he joined Melbourne morning newspaper The Argus in 1949 and worked alongside MCG Media Hall of Fame inductees Ron Carter, Ian MacDonald, Hugh Buggy, Percy Taylor and Jack Cannon.
His sister, Jill Grace, is an MCG guide. MCC member Phil Marendaz, a Bendigo Bank director, guided the funding process through the bank.
There are approximately 100 copies of the book remaining for sale and members are most welcome to avail themselves via phone (03 9808 6622) or www.bpabooks.com.