New ABC series Fires tells the story of Black Summer

When we remember the fires of what's now known as Black Summer the images that spring to mind are those of ordinary people facing extraordinary times.

Families huddled on the beach on New Year's Eve; farmers holding off the flames with garden hoses; members of the volunteer fire services at the frontline, men and women who were just like us, parents, retirees, electricians, nurses, risking their lives for months on end right across the nation.

The fires raged from September to March, 33 people died as a result, including nine firefighters, more than 17 million hectares were burned.

And in many ways, when the pandemic hit just as the smoke was clearing, we forgot all about it.

A new series from the ABC, Fires, hopes to take people back to the catastrophe and acknowledge trauma and loss, but most importantly remind us of how the nation came together when pushed to the brink.

There's a stellar cast: Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto, Anna Torv, Sam Worthington, Noni Hazelhurst. Eliza Scanlen and Hunter Page-Lochard play young volunteer firefighters Tash and Mott, who, after surviving a near-death experience in one of the first fires of the season in Queensland, decide to head south and fight fires over the summer.

Hunter Page-Lochard plays young rookie firefighter Mott. Picture: Supplied

Hunter Page-Lochard plays young rookie firefighter Mott. Picture: Supplied

Each of the six episodes is set somewhere along the way, standalone stories tied together by the journey of the young firefighters but also by a sense of hope and optimism.

Co-creator, writer and showrunner Belinda Chayko (Safe Harbour, Secret City, Stateless) lives in northern NSW, which was hit hard by the bushfires early in the season.

"I remember fires burning for weeks in the hills behind my home," she says.

"Smoky haze hung around, some days the sun was just a bright orange ball, barely visible through the smoke in the sky.

"Living in a largely rainforest area, I had never really had a fear of bushfires but these were different because of the prolonged drought, even the rainforests were burning."

When co-creator and executive producer Tony Ayres contacted her with the idea of the anthology she immediately said yes.

"The bushfires of 2019/20 were a watershed for this country and it felt important to mark that in some way."

Ayres (The Slap, Glitch, Barracuda, Clickbait) said it was crucial for the production to get it right; "so many people had lived through the fires, and it was important to honour their experience."

Noni Hazelhurst plays Caris Mazzeo who becomes a link to the community. Picture: Supplied

Noni Hazelhurst plays Caris Mazzeo who becomes a link to the community. Picture: Supplied

There was a three-month research process where the production team gathered stories from people who had lived through the fires via news reports and personal interviews, finding those experiences that resonated the most. Later on the cast and crew trained with volunteer brigades, a former firefighter was on set, dream screen technology was used to virtually recreate the fire scenes.

"It had to be authentic," Ayres says.

The production went with the anthology format because it became important to represent different experiences. Chayko said one way of doing that was to set the episodes in different places with different characters.

"Trying to tell the story of the fires through one location or set of characters felt like it would not do justice to the enormity of what happened," she says.

"It was also clear that we wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people. Not from a government or operational level, but the people who were there - on the ground - in the middle of things.

"People who were, apart from the volunteer firefighters, not trained or necessarily equipped to deal with it. We wanted those who hadn't experienced the fires to get some understanding of what it may have been like. Authentic and immersive became catch words for us during the development and production.

Anna Torv and Dan Spielman appear in episode three "Stay or Leave". Picture: Supplied

Anna Torv and Dan Spielman appear in episode three "Stay or Leave". Picture: Supplied

"We also wanted to show as many different aspects of living through the fires that we could - not just what it might be like to fight a fire, but also what it was like to have to make the decision about whether to stay or not. Or what it was like to be in an evacuation centre, for example. Although not chronological, the series tells the whole experience of a fire - from hearing about the fire approaching, to being in the middle of things, to the aftermath."

Hunter Page-Lochard, who's best known for his work in Cleverman, Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires, has been acting for more than 20 years. The son of Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Page-Lochard made his debut as a six-month-old in a Bangarra performance and he his first big break in Water Rats as an eight-year-old. But nothing could have prepared him for Fires.

"It was life-changing," he says.

"It was one of those productions that reinvigorates your perspective on what we do as artists, the importance of story-telling, and there was a real focus and devotion and responsibility to it."

He relished the time training with the volunteer crews, but says it's not something he'd have the fortitude to do in real life.

"These people were heroic but at the same time they all said they didn't want us to make them look like heroes.

"One guy said don't make us heroes, we're not action stars, jumping out of trucks, worrying about what we look like ... he said we're all just regular people."

Eliza Scanlen and Hunter Page-Lochard play young volunteer firefighters Tash and Mott. Picture: Supplied

Eliza Scanlen and Hunter Page-Lochard play young volunteer firefighters Tash and Mott. Picture: Supplied

In many ways the series will be confronting for these regular people. In the first episode when Tash and Mott get trapped in their truck while the fire engulfs them, you're taken back to the real-life footage of the crew who went through this in the Currowan fire just south of Nowra.

In episode two dairy farmers Kath (Miranda Otto) and Duncan (Richard Roxburgh) return to their farm to find the homestead gone and half their cattle needing to be euthanised.

In episode three, former Canberrans Lally (Anna Torv) and Adrian (Dan Spielman) have moved to the coast for a sea-change but Lally refuses to evacuate, losing power and mobile coverage.

Episode four is a touching episode set on Christmas Eve, as Mish (Charlotte Best) and Glen (Sam Worthington) put their differences aside to provide some Christmas spirit for the families sheltering in an evacuation centre.

By episode five the fire fronts have joined up and are creating their own weather, there are too many people to help, too many calls to answer as radio operator (Daniel Henshaw) struggles to manage resources.

The final episode is set on New Year's Eve, towns on the coast have been isolated, there is no way out. Caris (Noni Hazelhurst) is a widow who's been working on community radio, now she's the last link people have to find out what is going on.

All of these storylines will remind you of real-life events that happened over that summer. Perhaps you lived through some of them yourself.

Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh as Kath and Duncan Simpson. Picture: Supplied

Miranda Otto and Richard Roxburgh as Kath and Duncan Simpson. Picture: Supplied

Ayres says the series was never meant to be a statement on how the fires were handled, or indeed on environmental issues.

"When we were putting the show together, we were really conscious of not making it agitprop and not just making it something that preaches to the converted.

"We wanted to give people a full range of experience and an emotional experience, and then let them draw their own conclusion and their own thoughts.

"There are some characters in the show who absolutely believe that we need to take up arms right now, and start marching about things like climate change and the environment, and hopefully they're things people will discuss. All you can do when you're making fiction is create an emotional effect for the audience."

To wrap it all up in the final episode there's a flash forward, the rains have come, the fires are out, life is returning to the new normal. Each set of characters is revisited, their stories full of hope. And in the end this is what Ayres wants everyone to take from it.

"The show has a couple of recurring themes," he says.

"One is the heroism of everyday people, having to deal with things like this, their heroism and resilience.

"The other is the importance of community and how we survive these things, how people coming together can help us deal with things that we can't deal with as individuals.

"The research was telling us that this is how people actually survive, it's through communities banding together."

Does he wonder then, looking at what's happening now during the pandemic, with states divided, with people divided by misinformation, if we learned anything.

"We do live in increasingly divided worlds and I think that any message that speaks about common goals, about coming together, is a good message to be sending into the world right now."

  • Fires. Starts Sunday September 26 at 8.40pm on ABC and ABC iView.
This story A story of resilience and hope first appeared on The Canberra Times.