24 Dec 2019 | Clubs and Facilities | Feature stories |
By Charles Happell, Golf Vic magazine
Bob Emblin played golf on the morning of the most devastating and deadly bushfires to ever hit Victoria – Saturday February 7, 2009, the day we have all come to know as Black Saturday.
A life member at the Marysville Community Golf and Bowls Club, which would soon find itself at the epicentre of the inferno, Emblin wasn’t going to be put off by the searing heat and blustery north winds. He’d played in worse conditions than that before. And besides, it was monthly medal day.
So, aged 74, he headed off to the first tee in his golf cart and discovered that one of his playing partners that day was a promising club junior, 13-year-old Matthew Liesfield, whose family had moved to Marysville from nearby Buxton just a week earlier.
Emblin remembers telling the boy: ‘C’mon, jump in the cart and ride with me; it’s too hot to be walking.’
As the morning wore on and the temperature rose, Emblin got to talking to Matthew about school and his plans for the future. “I remember asking if he’d enjoyed his holidays and whether he was looking forward to going back to school, which was due to start back the following week,” he recalls.
“Matthew said, ‘yep, I’ve only got four years to go and I’ll be finished school and then I want to go to university’. He was such a terrific young fellow. So full of promise ….”
After the round, a par event, Emblin bought the youngster a soft drink and they waited around as the final groups finished and the results came in and, lo and behold, no-one was able to better Matthew’s score of 5-up, so he became the club’s newest, and possibly youngest, monthly medal winner.
Yet, as they sat in the clubhouse, the heat became even more fierce and the weather even more menacing, so Emblin suggested they all go home and get themselves inside and out of harm’s way.
“And that’s the last I saw of him. He and his older brother James and their mother perished inside their house later that night,” says Emblin quietly, still greatly affected by the horror that visited their community 10 years ago.
The heartbreaking story is one of many such tales you’ll find in Kinglake, Marysville, Strathewen, St Andrews, Beechworth, Bendigo and Gippsland – of friends and family members, helpless, being engulfed by the flames which tore across the Victorian countryside that day.
The fires, fanned by a howling northwesterly and then a cool change, resulted in Australia's highest ever loss of life from a bushfire, with 173 direct fatalities, a figure that later increased to 180 after seven people died from their injuries. Hundreds more were injured, thousands left homeless.
Eventually 34 fatalities were confirmed in the Marysville area, with all but 14 of over 400 buildings in the township destroyed.
The golf course and maintenance sheds were destroyed, including pumps, tractors, mowers, golf carts and equipment and signage, as were the six bridges crossing the Steavenson River which snakes through the layout.
Somehow the clubhouse survived and it was transformed into a local hub for the Marysville community. The town itself was declared a crime scene, closed to all access for a number of weeks following the fires, but the clubhouse was situated right on the edge of the exclusion zone and became a focal point for gatherings, briefings, even funerals, and the distribution of information.
Computers were set up inside the building and counsellors worked from there, dealing with those locals who’d been traumatised by the blaze. They had no shortage of work.
When the course was finally re-opened, five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson turned up to join 63 other golfers for a Saturday morning competition and hit the ceremonial first tee shot.
Like Emblin, Liz Amos is a life member at Marysville. She was one of many who worked tirelessly after the fires to get the club back into a playable state and later wrote a book about the catastrophe which includes dramatic before and after photographs.
“The clubhouse was made of these cement blocks and somehow it survived the fire – it was one of the few things left standing,” Amos said. “All the holes were damaged in some way.
“I used to think that if you ran down to the river and sat in the water, you’d be safe from any fire but having seen the damage afterwards, I don’t think that’s the case. All the undergrowth right down to the edge of the water was burnt. I think you’d have died of smoke inhalation.”
Interestingly, that’s where Emblin himself sheltered – in the Steavenson River under a bridge, fully dressed – after he’d packed his wife off in her car and told her to get the hell out of the place. He then went to his car but was shocked to discover his keys missing. With the fire bearing down on him, he sprinted to the river and jumped in, waiting, submerged, till the worst of the inferno passed.
Matthew Liesfield’s winning scorecard from that day is now kept in the Marysville clubhouse and a Liesfield Trophy is held each year in honour of him and his 14-year-old brother James. Behind the 18th tee, a memorial garden has been planted for those Marysville members who lost their lives on February 7 – two golfers and three lawn bowlers – and that number includes 15-year-old Dalton Fiske, the brother of Marysville’s greenkeeper, Kellan.
For Kellan, the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday is a time only for solemn reflection. He lost both his brother and mother Elizabeth in the fires.
He was a 20-year-old apprentice greenkeeper at Marysville at the time but wasn’t working at the course on that Saturday – instead, as a volunteer CFA firefighter, he was on the back of a firetruck trying to keep the community safe. His dad Glen, a CFA captain, was also out fighting the fires when the family home was destroyed.
“I have thought about the anniversary a little bit but for those of us affected by Black Saturday, we are reminded of it all the time,” he said. “We live it every day – for me, it’s the blackened trees around the course, or finding burnt golf balls around the place.
“The memorial garden behind the 18th tee has a beautiful little plaque and I see that at least twice a week when we mow the tees.”
Fiske credits his job at the golf club as being a key factor in his recovery and enabling him to piece his life back together. He is now 30 and has a partner and says he’s content with his lot.
“The fact I had a job to go to after the fires was so important,” he said. “That, and the support I received from the members and the club received from the golf industry, including the greenkeepers’ association, was what helped me get on with my life.”
From the highest point on the course, around the 12th green and 13th tee, you can get a wonderful view out to Cathedral Ridge and it is here that thereminders of Black Saturday are most vivid: a cluster of Mountain Ash trees, burnt a greyish-white colour and devoid of any vegetation, standing like silent sentries over the course.
Amos said while the black wattle trees had regenerated very quickly, the Mountain Ash never recovered. “From the course, you can see them sticking up in the distance, almost like a crew-cut,” she said.
She said the course is looking an absolute treat at the moment, which is a credit to the young superintendent and his band of volunteers: “It is in better condition now than it has been in the 25 years that I’ve been a member.”
Golf has also been something of a saviour for Emblin, who still plays regularly at the age of 84. The rest of the time, he can be found on a mower or tractor helping Fiske and tending to the course.
“I volunteer three or four days a week, cutting the fairways and greens, and doing whatever else is needed,” he said. “I’ve been volunteering for 17 years because I just love the club and its members, and I want to see Marysville get back to what it was – a thriving, successful country golf club.”
In 2019, Marysville residents marked the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday with a church ceremony at 6pm on February 7 – the time and date in 2009 that the blaze roared across from Narbethong and arrived on the town’s doorstep.
After the service at Christ Church, one of the many buildings which had to be reconstructed after the fires, the congregation walked down to the Black Saturday memorial at Gallipoli Park. A single church bell rang for a minute in tribute.
Five days earlier, on the Saturday, the Marysville Community Golf and Bowls Club commemorated the anniversary, and the five golf and lawn bowls members who lost their lives, by holding the annual Liesfield Trophy. Behind the 18th tee, where the memorial garden and plaque are situated, a quiet ceremony was held to honour the victims.
Lesley Rundle, the ladies' captain at Marysville, said the 10th anniversary was as much about remembrance as it was about thanking those hundreds of volunteers – individuals and organisations – who helped rebuild the town and golf club.
And the thank-you list is a long one: helpers, donors, workers, suppliers and volunteers of every hue who came out in droves in the weeks and months after the fires to rebuild the community.
BlueScope donated the steel used to rebuild the six bridges that cross the Steavenson River. Sand was supplied by builders for new bunkers, clubs and balls were donated by golfers around Victoria, and greenkeepers came from all over to help re-turf 17 of the 20 greens that were killed off.
The dead grass and topsoil were removed and replaced with a new layer of sand, instant turf (paid for by the Marysville Lions Club) was rolled out and it was all top-dressed by hand. The greenkeepers also planted trees along the river near the bowls club, which helped stop soil erosion from the winter rains.
The pump shed was burned down so a group of local plumbers, with the help of Goulburn Water, repaired the irrigation system that brought water up from the Steavenson. Arborists, and a couple of locals who worked in the logging industry, helped clear the most dangerous of the damaged trees.
Christie, the former course superintendent and life member of the club, played a crucial role in coordinating the recovery and kept the place going in the year after the fires. Nine holes were re -opened for play in May and the final nine later in the year, once the bridges were repaired.
It was an extraordinary community effort that lives on today through superintendent Kellan Fiske and his trusty band of five or six volunteers who help keep the course in pristine condition.
Steve Coker was not a member of the club at the time of Black Saturday, although he and his wife, as part-time residents, lost their home in the fires.
After Black Saturday, Coker became responsible for the bushfire clean-up across the state as an Executive Project Manager with Grocon.
He joined the club later in 2009, began playing regularly and is now the club president. Coker said there was a huge voluntary response from individuals, organisations, businesses and clubs from all over Australia in the initial clean-up.
Over time a plan was created to refurbish the clubhouse facility – golf shop, members lounge and deck area, commercial kitchen, function room/restaurant space, bowls office, golf office and bar facilities.
Said Coker: “The club members now enjoy the benefits of this sustained recovery over 10 years; it is maintained by Kellan Fiske and a dedicated team of volunteers who have a passion to present the course and gardens to a high standard each week. Long time members, visitors and the community are very complimentary about the standard of presentation."
Before Black Saturday the club had about 150 members. “A lot of members moved from the area after the fires and said: ‘enough’s enough’. There were probably too many bad memories, too,” said Bob Emblin. But the club has built back up to 120 active members and runs two competitions each week.
Ten years after the day which devastated the community, the hard work has begun to pay off. It’s there for all to see in the lush fairways, verdant surrounds and smooth-rolling greens. So much so that members are almost unanimous in their view: the course has never looked better.
First published in Golf Vic magazine February, 2019. Republished with the permission of Golf Victoria.
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