Sampson Flat is in the north-east of Adelaide. It was the site of the first ignition for 2015 bushfire in the Adelaide Hills. The day the fire ignited was declared a Total Fire Ban day with temperatures reaching 41°C. The temperature remained in the high 30’s for the next 6 days. The area affected by the bushfire was predominantly the northern Adelaide Hills and the outer Adelaide metropolitan area.
‘A smudge as big as a mountain was spreading across the sky. It was the colour of dirty sulphur and growing with terrible speed. They knew what that meant. The fire was already in the Big Scrub, with a wind like a blast furnace behind it. … It was going to be the bitterest fight for years.’ February Dragon by Colin Thiele (1966). Landsdowne Publishing, 1997 printing.
It was January 2nd, 2015 – the sixtieth anniversary of the devastating Black Sunday fires and equally as hot, with a forecast of worsening conditions to follow.
The local fire brigade had extinguished a small fire at Sampson Flat, on the edge of a very large and rugged tract of bush. Somehow, the scene was left unattended; somehow, the fire re-ignited. By the time fire trucks returned, it was spreading uncontrollably into the scrub.
The fire burned uncontained and uncontrolled for days, easily the region’s worst in over thirty years. Many houses razed, many square kilometres of bush and farmland burnt. Through undeserved good fortune no human lives were lost. Animals fared far worse: charred bones underfoot spoke of chaos and carnage.
Fire, they say, is a natural part of Australian ecosystems. This obscures an overriding truth: bushfires now are often anything but natural. For it is humans – whether through malice, carelessness or accident – that start so many fires, and often on the most dangerous days.
The woodlands in these photographs have been much abused since European settlement. Timber-getting, grazing, mining, rubbish dumping, and wattle-bark harvesting have each left their mark. But in my lifetime, the frequent minor fires and occasional major conflagrations – killing older trees, preventing surviving vegetation from reaching maturity – have caused the most damage.
My bond with the area spans almost fifty years; I lived nearby for a long time, and had walked and photographed there many times. I knew its fire history; I was familiar with its flora and fauna; I had my botanist’s training. So it was natural to set out to document the extent and severity of the fire’s damage, and to track the area’s slow, halting steps towards recovery.