DEADLY ARSON ATTACK Inside the tragic Black Saturday fires
Amid the devastation of 2009’s Black Saturday, 10 people were
—Brendan Sokaluk “When I threw paper on the road it ignited”
The weather conditions on Feb. 7, 2009 were perfect for fire to take hold. Victoria was in the midst of a prolonged drought and temperatures had hovered around the mid-40s for days. Earlier that week, the state’s then premier John Brumby warned of the fire danger. “The state is just tinder-dry,” he said. “People need to exercise real common sense.” In the afternoon of the day that became known as Black Saturday, there were already a string of major fires burning across the state. The ones lit by Brendan Sokaluk – which claimed the lives of 10 people – are examined in Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist.
It was 46 degrees in the Latrobe valley, with wind gusts of 70 km/ h, when the 39-year-old man bought a packet of cigarettes and, with his dog Brocky, drove along Glendonald Road. He would later tell police that an ember from his cigarette dropped onto the car floor and he attempted to put it out using a bit of serviette. What Brendan did next led to one of the most devastating bushfires of the day. “When I threw the paper on the road it ignited,” Hooper quotes Sokaluk as telling police. “I didn’t know. It was too late. I panicked … I called Triple- O and started telling them there was a fire on that road. I did a bad thing and I’m scared … s--t scared.” Writes Hooper: “For arsonists who thrill to the drama of the emergency response, it is not unusual to call in the fire they’ve lit. Later, police speculated that Sokaluk may have hidden on the track in the overgrown plantation and waited to watch the firefighters arrive on the scene.”
The fire moved quickly – 7km within the first 50 minutes in a south-easterly direction, before the wind changed and the fire shifted south-west towards the towns of Koornalla and Traralgon South. Witnesses recalled seeing the unemployed scrap metal collector standing still, staring transfixed at the fire as it approached.
“Through the truck’s window, one volunteer called, ‘Get out of here, there’s a fire!’” Hooper writes. “Then, when Brendan didn’t move, ‘Are you here to help someone?’ He didn’t answer: he just stood cradling his dog, watching the flames.”
The Leatham family were on a bush block in Callignee when the fire reached them. “Outside it is growing dark,” Hooper writes.
“Smoke blocks the sun and the sky glows red. In the background they can hear the blaze, constant like an ocean. Surrounded by steep gullies, they can’t see flames. They can’t tell where this fire is, until suddenly it feels very close. The family debate whether to stay or go, stay or go, and then it is clear they have only moments to leave.”
Annette Leatham, 51, died in the blaze and her husband Rodney sustained burns to 40 per cent of his body. Nine others were taken by the Churchill-jeeralang bushfire; more than 150 homes were burnt down and 36,000 hectares of land were destroyed.
Sokaluk – who had once attempted to join the County Fire Authority but was knocked back for his odd behaviour – has always insisted setting the fire wasn’t a deliberate act. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” he told police.
During interviews and his subsequent trial, it was speculated that although he was on the autism spectrum, Sokaluk was exaggerating his intellectual disability. A lengthy psychological assessment decided he was fit to stand trial and in February 2012 he pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of arson causing death and two charges of intentionally or recklessly causing the bushfire. The arson squad found forensic evidence to show he’d deliberately lit two fires.
Sokaluk’s neighbour, Patricia Hammond, said he would often light fires in his back garden. “Arsonists light fires for a multitude of reasons: boredom, rage, a desire for revenge or power, to be thought of as a hero, or out of psychosis,” Hooper tells WHO. “I think you can say that lighting a fire on a 46-degree day in gale force winds was a heinous, evil act. But I think you can also say, here is this man who to some extent inhabited an alternate reality due to his quite profound cognitive differences and who probably didn’t mean to kill anybody.”
Sokaluk was sentenced to 17 years and nine months’ jail with a minimum 14-year term after being found guilty in April 2012. Newspapers gave him the tag of “Victoria’s worst killer” for deliberately lighting fires during the most devastating natural disaster in Australia’s history.