Out of the Ashes: Preparation saves the day| Video

The Mail-Times has been outlining some of the personal stories of Grampians bushfire survivors.

The Out of the Ashes series profiles the people who suffered during the fires, which start on January 15 and razed homes, properties and thousands of hectares of park and private land.

To date, more than 55,100 hectares have been burnt and crews are still working in the area.

On Tuesday, Country Fire Authority District 17 stalwart Kevin Bolwell introduced Mail-Times journalist EMMA D’AGOSTINO to a handful of Wartook residents.

This is grazier Hugh Russell’s story.

WARTOOK grazier Hugh Russell will celebrate his 80th birthday next month.

He lives with his sheep dog in a house full of memories, overlooking the picturesque Asses Ears mountain range.

Before the northern Grampians bushfire swept through last month, more than 1100 sheep roamed his 320-hectare property.

Mr Russell still runs his own farm.

He was alone and asleep when the fire roared onto his property about 1.20am on January 17.

“I had been to the information evening at the Laharum Hall on the Thursday night,” he said.

“I came back home and it didn’t look as though anything spectacular was going to happen out the front, in the range.

“I brought in a couple of mobs of sheep, and put them through the yards down by the wool shed.”

Then, he instinctively went about preparing his house for a fire.

He watered down all the spouts.

“The blinds were down, so I watered them and put them up,” he said.

“I don’t know whether I had a premonition that something was going to happen, but I did these things I probably wouldn’t have bothered to do normally.

“About half past 11, I had a shower and lay on the bed for a while. When I came to, there was a vivid glow in the bedroom.”

The fire was visible through the window.

“It was burning across the front of the house, down the south and north sides,” he said.

Battle

He battled the fire alone for about an hour, until reinforcements arrived in the shape of his brother-in-law, about 3am, followed by a fire truck.

“I did not lose power, nor did I lose any phone,” he said.

Mr Russell estimated he received about 17 emergency alerts from the Country Fire Authority on his message bank in three days.

“But the recorded message didn’t really give me much indication of what was going to happen,” he said.

“If I’d had any feeling it was going to have an impact like this, I wouldn’t have been lying on my bed having a snooze.

“I think the most alert I got was when I looked out the bedroom window and saw what was going on.”

Was he frightened by what he woke to?

“No, not really,” Mr Russell said.

He joined the CFA when he was 16 years old.

Although it has been some time since he was part of a strike team, he guessed he had been involved with almost all the fires in the district.

He credits thorough fire prevention strategies with saving his property.

Preparation

For about 50 years, he has routinely sprayed weeds around the house and kept his grass short.

While it was still safe to do so, Mr Russell also burnt an area of grass around his house and buildings.

“Where this fire stopped is where I had been burning,” he said.

He lost 63 sheep to the bushfire, some of which were his breeding ewes, and his hay shed was beyond salvation.

Mr Russell also lost his parents’ home on Brimpaen-Laharum Road, believed to have been built in 1888.

But overall, he felt he successfully defended his property and himself.

“Don’t ask me whether I will have the same fire plan in five years’ time – I might not be quite as fit as that,” he said.

“But I’m not changing my fire prevention program. I’ll keep mowing and keeping it short.”

He said people ought to make up their own minds about whether to stay and defend, or leave, based on their confidence in their capabilities.

But either way, Mr Russell said people needed to have a plan.

“If you haven’t got a plan in place, you can’t expect someone else to help you,” he said.

“You’ve got to take a certain amount of responsibility for yourself.”

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