Peter Auty was a popular, unconventional member of the Flowerdale community, and the town’s local poet. He joined the Flowerdale Country Fire Authority (CFA) in 2002, and was an active member until Black Saturday in 2009. He served in Flowerdale on Black Saturday and for four days after the fires. He remained close to the CFA until his death in 2013.
Life in Flowerdale
Peter Auty moved from Brisbane to Melbourne to be near his family in 1999. His father owned a property in Flowerdale, Victoria, and after a few years in the city Peter moved to the country. A passionate conservationist, he thrived in the tight knit community where he divided his time between teaching gardening and conservation classes at the local primary school, working on the family property and at CERES in Melbourne.
Peter joined the Flowerdale Country Fire Authority (CFA) in 2002, and was an active member until Black Saturday in 2009. He served in Flowerdale on Black Saturday (07 February 2009) and for four days after the fires. Following Black Saturday he worked in an administrative capacity with the CFA.
Peter was a popular, unconventional member of the Flowerdale community, easily recognized by his colourful hats and choice of clothing. He was also active in the Australian folk music and bush poetry communities and was Flowerdale's local poet. Peter had a lifetime association with Australian folk culture and used traditional Australian bush poetry to chronicle, explore and explain local events, which culminated in his Black Saturday poetry.
On the morning of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, Peter and the rest of his team arrived at the Flowerdale CFA station to prepare for the predicted dangerous weather. At 15:15 the Flowerdale tanker was sent to Murrindindi, leaving the town without protection. Peter Auty and two others remained in Flowerdale to drive through the area telling residents to leave, as the fires were heading towards the town. They then set up a roadblock and directed locals away from the fire front. Some residents stayed but most left because of the warnings. When the tanker returned, Peter was involved protecting the town over the next three days, during which time the town was cut off from all outside communication. The tanker crew discovered the bodies of 7 residents on the first morning after the 7th. In the Flowerdale area there were 10 deaths, and 85% of homes were destroyed.
The 2009 Victorian Bushfires began in late January and culminated on Black Saturday, 7 February. This remains Australia’s most deadly natural disaster; 400 fires were recorded in over 100 locations across Victoria. 173 people were killed, 414 were injured. Over 3,400 properties were destroyed or damaged. Over 10,000 km of fences were burnt and more than 11,000 farm animals were killed or injured. Nearly 430,000 hectares of land were razed, and more than 1 million native animals perished. In terms of Victoria's public lands over 287,000 hectares was burnt, including almost 100,000 hectares of national and state parks and reserves, and nearly 170,000 hectares of state forests and reserves.
Aftermath of Black Saturday
On the 11 February 2009, after four days fighting the fires, Peter wrote a poem called ‘No More’, relating his experience of the helplessness of trained fire fighters in the face of the fires. This poem was given to Premier John Brumby, who read it out at the National Day of Mourning at Rod Laver Arena and again in parliament. Peter's poem and his role during and following Black Saturday have been acknowledged in the Victorian Hansard, the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission, ABC radio and numerous newspaper articles.
Following Black Saturday Peter suffered from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the fires. He was instrumental in rebuilding the community of Flowerdale after the fires. He worked with the local primary school, the CFA and the rebuilding committees. He organised and performed at local folk festivals to raise funds for rebuilding, and was involved with training residents in horticulture and replanting. He also worked with artists to commemorate the event through the 'Illuminated by Fire' Flowerdale community art project.
Legacy & Collection
Peter was diagnosed with terminal cancer early in 2013, and he died on the 3 October 2013. Community support for Peter during this illness was very strong, and he was featured in a number of newspaper articles. A few weeks before his death he received a letter from a local resident whose life he had saved on Black Saturday, a pivotal moment in his life. Before his death he expressed an interest for the CFA equipment he used on Black Saturday and the letter he received to be offered to a museum. After his death former Premier John Brumby sent a consolation email describing the profound effect of Peter’s poem during the bushfires. Peter received the National Emergency Medal posthumously on the 24 November 2013, and the CFA 10 year service medal in 2014.
In November 2014 the Museum acquired a collection of 74 items that document the life of Peter Auty. The objects, photographs and documents illustrate his colourful and interesting life, why he was well loved by his community, and his recognition in the Victorian Parliament and local community for the important role he played on and following Black Saturday. The collection forms part of the larger Victorian Bushfires Collection which was established following Black Saturday and includes a multi-disciplinary collection of artefacts, images and stories to record the experience and impact of bushfires across Victoria’s landscape, ecology and history.