"THERE was absolutely nothing, no sounds, no wind, no bird life, no animal life, no smell of the bush... just nothing .. just the smell of burnt."
That is the lingering sensation which still resonates with Kangaroo Flat CFA captain Layton Miller two years on from an apocalyptic nightmare.
The memories of the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires continue to plague the minds and lives of those affected.
Mr Miller was one of the many emergency personnel deployed to assist firefighting efforts across the country during Australia's hottest year on record.
"It was the first time I've seen that type of devastation through fire," he said.
In September 2019, fires ravaged rainforests and gullies in south eastern Queensland before travelling across the border into northern New South Wales.
By the end of the year, blazes had taken hold in much of eastern Victoria, burning through East Gippsland and resulting in an Australian Defence Forces (ADF) evacuation of nearly 2000 people on New Year's Eve in Mallacoota.
By March 2020 the fires had burnt through 18.6 million hectares of land and resulted in 34 direct fatalities and 445 indirect fatalities due to smoke inhalation.
Across the fire season, state of emergency declarations were in place in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
"The 2019/2020 Australian bushfires were among the most significant disasters our country has experienced", said a Fire Rescue Victoria spokesperson.
Kangaroo Flat captain and Bendigo local Layton Miller was deployed alongside Carolyn Addington as community liaison officers in Orbost in East Gippsland in early January.
"The day we arrived, the whole Gippsland eastern side of the state was basically under an emergency warning," he said. "So you knew fires were absolutely raging everywhere.
"We had 26 towns and we had to make contact with those towns to find out whether people were hurt or missing and what they needed."
By the time the pair arrived, the region had been hit hard - more than half of the East Gippsland LGA was burnt in the blazes and more than 60,000 people were evacuated, while a state of disaster remained in place for 10 days.
Mr Miller and Ms Addington worked minimum 12 hour shifts, communicating with local community leaders and agencies to provide support to fire impacted and affected towns.
"On one of the occasions I had a phone call from a local asking about a couple that lived very remotely," Mr Miller recalled.
"The fire-front had gone through their property and no one had heard from them.
"So we had to try and find out where they were and who they were - 'cause they didn't know them or their surnames, they only knew their first names."
Among other tasks, Mr Miller worked collaboratively with Victoria Police to establish the whereabouts of hundreds of missing people.
The missing couple was eventually located on holidays in Darwin - thousands of kilometres from the Gippsland fire-front.
However, as Mr Miller puts it, the uncertainty of a missing person - especially given the visible devastation on the fireground - didn't lend well to a wandering mind.
"We don't know whether or not they're alive or dead, and that was one of the hardest things we dealt with," Mr Miller said.
The situation in the fire-affected towns was dire: blankets of smoke blocked solar panels as electricity grids were cut and telephone poles lay burnt on the fireground.
ADF helicopters dropped satellite phones to isolated towns as still smouldering trees blocked road access to communities ravaged by blazes.
"It was us," Mr Miller said. "We were all they had, we were their point of call for everything."
Mr Miller's second stint working on the Black Summer fires saw him deployed to Swifts Creek in East Gippsland's Tambo Valley.
"We did a lot of door-knocking there in areas that were at high risk of potential fires," he said.
Mr Miller said the main reason people got caught out in fires was due to lack of communication.
"Husbands and wives, partners and families weren't communicating with each other about what they're actually going to do," he said.
"We would show up and ask what people's plans were and one family member would say 'Oh we're staying to defend' and the other would say 'Oh no we're leaving'.
"And we'd just sigh and say to them: 'You people need to have a plan, you need to sit back and have a plan about what you're going to do - if you're going to stay and defend, or if you're gonna leave'.
"Because, if you're gonna leave, you need to leave early and if you're gonna stay and defend you need to have your plans in place."
In Mr Miller's third and final deployment, he was once again sent to Orbost, however this time he went into local communities to assess their situations.
"I got to meet some of the people that I spoke to in the first instance, which was absolutely fantastic," he said.
But the stories were much the same - locals left to defend themselves as overstretched fire crews battled blazes on several fronts.
One group of six Tamboon residents - who saved 12 different properties - were sleeping in tents on a sandbar after being surrounded by fires.
"They just asked us for some fresh bread," Mr Miller said. "That's all they wanted."
Across Mr Miller's three deployments, he saw what could only be described as utter devastation.
"You look at some of the places and you go, 'I don't know how these people survived'," he said.
"You're travelling in the car," he said, "and everything's just orange, I can't even express the type of orange it is.
"And everything is just dead. No leaves rustling in the wind, no animal life, just the burnt smell of bush everywhere.
"I hope to never have to see that again."
Mr Miller ended his Black Summer deployments after his third stint in East Gippsland, and said returning home was the hardest thing he had to do.
"I came home to my house, my wife and we left these people," he said.
"We didn't know what was going on with them, and that was the hardest thing that I dealt with.
"Two years on, it still affects me.
"I came home and cried for two days straight ... I was very quiet."
Mr Miller is just one of many emergency personnel still recovering from their experiences during the 2019-2020 fires.
"I was only one person. Everybody has their stories," Mr Miller said. "And everyone feels it in some way."
A new Edith Cowan University study revealed that of the nearly 65,000 responders who assisted during the Black Summer fires, nearly half reported post-traumatic stress symptoms in the 12 months following the fires.
Mr Miller says he has friends and colleagues who spent time in Mallacoota and in the New South Wales fires, all who have used the CFA's Member Assistance Program (MAP).
"You've gotta talk," he said. "You need to not let it bubble. You need to look after your mental health and your wellbeing."
Despite the continuing emotional toll of the Black Summer fires, the 30-year firefighter veteran says he never once considered leaving the brigade.
"We see lots of things," he said. "Some very bad things and some very very good things.
"You take the good with the bad. We're here to assist the community and we do what we can do.
"There's been no time as a result of what I've seen in my past that's made me go, 'No I don't want to do this anymore'."
As we approach the two-year anniversary of the East Gippsland fires, the Kangaroo Flat captain carries with him the lessons of Black Summer.
"I came home to my wife after my first stint in Orbost, and I said to her, 'we're not ready'," Mr Miller said.
"After 30 years of firefighting, I realised that our property wasn't fire ready."
Fire season in central Victoria has well and truly begun, and brigades across the country are urging residents to not be complacent.
"The Bureau of Meteorology is saying that we're going to have a wetter than average summer, and if we have that, then we end up with grasses like they are now - at six-foot high in some places," ," Mr Miller said.
"And with mid 30-degree temperatures like we've already had, things are starting to dry out."
Mr Miller says the fuel loads coming into late January is a real worry for fire authorities.
"We haven't hit the height of summer yet," he said.
"By the time January comes around, we're going to be facing some huge risks of grass fires."
The CFA is urging residents to start preparing properties by clearing grasses, stocking up on food and fuel and having and having honest conversations with household members about their fire plans.
As seen in the 2019-2020 fires, the blazes can have devastating impacts for people and the environment - an estimated three billion animals were killed or displaced, millions of hectares burnt and 3000 homes were destroyed.
Two years on, communities and people are slowly rebuilding following the wreckage of Black Summer.
East Gippsland towns such as Mallacoota have had recovery efforts stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now hoping to rebuild this summer through an economic tourism boost.
For Mr Miller, the memories of the Black Summer fires are as much a part of daily life as pulling on his uniform.
For Christmas, his wife gifted him six bottles of wine from a vineyard in Benambra, a town that Mr Miller passed through on his deployment.
"They'd lost their whole yield that year," he said, "It had been that smoke affected".
A small token of support, reminding Mr Miller that two years on, small seeds of hope continue to sprout from beneath the ashes.
To see more information on fire preparation https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/how-to-prepare-your-property
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