News & Media

Good will on the road to recovery

  • The road to Healesville, post Black Saturday
  • View from the Heidelberg - Kinglake Road, Kinglake
  • David Laity checks on a barrel at Passing Clouds Winery

By: CFA News

Category: Community Safety, People

  9.48 AM 7 February, 2017

Location: General

Views: 3681

While attending a buck’s party in Melbourne on Saturday 7 February 2009, Chum Creek resident David Laity received the phone call he’d been dreading. 

“We think your house has burnt down,” a close friend told him.

Heart sinking, David phoned his partner, who was at a hen’s party in Melbourne, and passed on the devastating news.   

All week Victoria had been sweltering through its worst heatwave on record. The state was in the midst of a serious drought, where little rain had fallen in over two months. This, combined with extreme heat, high winds and low humidity, had created the worst bushfire weather conditions ever recorded.

For David and his partner, the main concern was their dog, who they had (luckily) decided that morning would be safer at their new rental property in Toolangi – which they were due to move into the following Monday.

The pair immediately left their respective parties and drove back up into the hills, only to be blocked by police road closures. After a few tense and emotional days in Healesville, they were finally able to gain access to Toolangi, where they found the fire had quite literally ‘skipped over’ their new property.

“Our dog came bounding out when we arrived… I can’t explain how relieved we were,” David says.

“Even then, knowing we’d probably lost everything at Chum Creek, we considered ourselves to be extremely lucky. We were safe, our dog was safe.”

Tuesday 7 February 2017 marks the eighth anniversary of Black Saturday, a day when the lives of many Victorians were changed forever.

Over 400 individual fires were recorded for that day alone. 173 people died and thousands more were injured, making these fires Australia’s most devastating bushfires on record.

2,029 homes were destroyed in total and over 400,000 hectares burnt. The towns of Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen, and Flowerdale were almost completely destroyed, and many other towns suffered serious damage.

More than 19,000 CFA members were involved in frontline firefighting, incident management and support behind the scenes.

Black Saturday was David Laity’s first experience of bushfire, and his first introduction to CFA.

“This time feels fuzzy now,” David says.

“Serious events were unfolding, but we had no idea about the magnitude in those early days.

“While we were in Toolangi, we felt safe knowing the CFA strike team was positioned nearby. My partner was a member of Marysville CFA, she hadn’t been active for a couple of years but we stayed to help defend our group of properties.

“We were lucky with the wind change during the week, which spared most of the hamlet of Toolangi from being hit too hard.”

Once conditions had subsided, David and his partner travelled down to Yarra Glen from Toolangi in a police convoy. The sheer scale of the damage and devastation caused by the fires was now slowly coming to light.

“The Red Cross and Salvation Army had leapt into action,” David recalls.

“We gathered as many supplies as we could and drove under police escort back up to Toolangi to drop them off at the Town Hall evacuation centre. Then we made our way back down towards Chum Creek.”

As predicted, their property at Chum Creek was well and truly gone.

For the next few weeks, David and his partner stayed at a close friend’s place down the road, helping her and her neighbours defend their homes. Like everyone else, they desperately awaited the relief of the forecasted rain.

Their own home was burnt out time and time again, and every few days they were forced, along with their neighbours, to evacuate and stay in town for several days.

“Everything was a blur, and each time we went back to the property I found myself looking for the strangest things,” David says.

“Our chickens, for instance – it sounds ridiculous, but amidst all the chaos, thinking about what had happened to our chickens really bothered me.”

Nearly a month later, the township of Toolangi finally reopened. David and his partner sifted through their meagre belongings and began moving into their new home.

But the recovery journey is long and complex, as David would soon find.

Reflecting on the utter devastation and loss of life from that fateful weekend, David felt increasingly grateful to the firefighters, support agencies and local community members who had given their all during those dark days.

David joined the Daylesford Fire Brigade as a volunteer firefighter not long after Black Saturday, later transferring to Woodend – where he still regularly attends call outs. 

But he still longed to do more, and so in 2010 David put the money he received from the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal towards establishing a new social enterprise, Goodwill Wines. The internet-based enterprise would sell boutique wines from small wineries, with fifty per cent of the profits going to not-for-profits (NFPs) and charity organisations.

“It took nearly five years to really get the initiative off the ground,” David says.

“But now we have raised money for over 350 different NFPs and community organisations right around Australia.”

David was given $15,000 through the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal in the wake of Black Saturday, and has now given over $180,000 back to charity. He says he is humbled by the success of his venture, and believes it has played a major role in his personal recovery and acceptance of what happened in 2009.

“I didn’t lose anywhere near what others lost,” he says.

“We had close friends and family who were impacted, but we didn’t experience the horrors some communities had to endure.

“We were extremely lucky, and Goodwill Wines was a way for me to acknowledge this and give back to those who really needed it.”

David hopes to one day expand the enterprise into a bricks and mortar retail store – and even possibly a string of Goodwill wine bars.

“I’m really proud of what we have achieved,” David says.

“Eight years on, these social and community organisations still provide much needed services to those who were impacted by the Black Saturday fires.”

To learn more about Black Saturday, visit the CFA website.

Last Updated: 07 February 2017