Ten years ago this month, Justin D’Ath and his partner quickly packed up a few belongings and their two dogs and fled their bush home in Flowerdale, in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range.
here was not a great deal of panic, he recalls. He had a fire plan in place and at the time thought he had left with more than an hour to spare. In hindsight, it was really just in the nick of time. The sky had filled with thick smoke and an eerie glow and the bank of tall pines near his house posed a risk.
Justin is one of the lucky survivors of Black Saturday - one of the worst bushfire episodes in Australian history.
Through his newly-released book,47 Degrees, the prolific children’s author revisits events of February 7, 2009 for the first time.
He does so through the eyes of a young heroine, Zeelie.
“I thought it would be interesting to look at the bushfires from a young girls’ point of view. She’s just about 13 and I transposed her and her family into my Flowerdale house. There was just her and her dad there on the day of the fire.”
The book, which has received rave reviews for its sensitive approach to the tragedy, is poignant, fast-paced and with ultimately positive outcomes. However D’Ath - who has penned close to 50 mostly young adventure books - was adamant the story not be “sugar-coated.”
While much of what happens to Zeelie is fiction, the events under-pinning 47 Degrees are very real.
“Physically it was my house so it was very real to me,” D’Ath says. “I gave her and her family some of my own feelings. It made it a much more real story.
“The father has a fire plan, the girl was a bit ambivalent about staying but she trusted her father and then they left at about the same time we did on that day and escaped to the relief centre at Yea, and spent the next few nights there.
“There’s strong a strong educational element, but I’ve made it exciting and interesting and ultimately uplifting at the end. It’s got as happy an ending as you can have,” D’Ath says. “I’ve acknowledged that people did die in the fire, a lot of people died, and so I included that element in the story, but I distanced it from the main character.
“I handled it quite sensitively I think. One-hundred-and-73 people died and we need to acknowledge them in the book and so that’s the way I did it and I’m pleased with the way I’ve done it.”
D’Ath, who lost his home and belongings on that day, did not return to rebuild in Flowerdale. Property insurance allowed him to rent elsewhere for 12 months.
He chose Point Lonsdale and has lived here ever since.
In reflecting on Black Saturday and his own personal story, he says he takes away many positives.
“Now when I read the finished book there’s a couple of places that just about bring me to tears. When I was writing it I didn’t experience that at all. It was more moving to read than it was to write.
“I just felt lucky. I didn’t know anyone who died or lost any loved ones so that was a total bonus and then in the aftermath people were so kind and generous, it was just extraordinary. It really put a positive spin on my view of fellow Australians. I’ve got more positive memories, than negative.”
47 Degrees is published by Penguin books and can be purchased from The Bookshop at Queenscliff.