All life seemed to be obliterated – but in nooks and gullies, spider webs and wombat burrows, a documentary team found that Australian wildlife could survive the Victorian bushfires.
Award-winning cinematographer David Parer has documented much Australian wildlife but even he was amazed to witness the way nature’s capacity to regrow so closely resembled the resilience of the people there.
“It was wonderful to see normal Aussie people stacking the bricks, cleaning up, immediately thinking of rebuilding,” he said. “At the same time animals were doing the same thing – as the lyre birds scratched around looking for meagre pickings in that burnt ground, people were doing the same thing.”
In February 2009, bushfires tore through Victoria, killing 173 people and destroying over 2,000 homes as it incinerated swathes of bushland.
Out of the Ashes follows a year in the life of the natural landscape and people of the land as both recover from the tragedy. David said it was a positive tale at a time when people needed to hear some good about the harsh Australian landscape.
One of the biggest challenges filming in the early days after the fires was finding something to film – great swathes of bushland and forest stood silenced, seemingly empty of all life.
“There was this funereal feeling in the days after the fires and you could walk into them and it was total silence,” he said. “But then you would suddenly see something – a spiderweb, a bird, or a wombat foraging among the embers.”
David captured images of animals returning to the burnt out forest because they knew that fire meant there would be food.
“Just as humans have niche areas of expertise, so does the wildlife,” he said. “Soft crested cockatoos would search out the seed pods that had split open in the fire but are not incinerated – they came after the fires knowing these tidbits were there.
“And flame robin birds come because they know a lot of little insects that emerge after the fires will be around – that’s what they specialise in.”
One of the most thrilling parts of filming was using a cineflex stabilised gyro mount camera slung under a helicopter. For three hours David soared over the charred landscape, the technology allowing him to capture both the size and scale of the devastation, as well as intimate portraits of wildlife.
“I spied a wedge tailed eagle and we did an aerial ballet with this bird as it cruised over the burnt out forest, 400 metres above, it was magical.”
Award winning director Dione Gilmour remembers feeling the first stirring of a documentary idea as she followed following the fires.
“I was glued to the radio, which was giving regular reports on bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland. What a country we live in!” she thought at the time.
“My mind raced to the possibilities. Floods in the north or the ecological outcomes from the bushfires? A few days later and reason re‐asserted itself. One program at a time.”
For Dione, a year was almost too short a period to capture the full regeneration of the bush.
“We had given ourselves the limit of 1 year after the fires and in some ways it was very restrictive,” she said. “Most of the mammal recolonization happened later and you feel to give a whole picture you need to keep going into the future.
“Maybe(it will take) 10 years, maybe a 100. But that will be for the next generation of film‐makers.”