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Bucan couple save precious picture as home burned down

“We stayed in the bunker for about 20 minutes,” Mr Graham said. ”We could see through the little viewing window that the house had caught on fire, so I dived out and tried to put it out, but the fire was in the roof space and I couldn’t put it out.”

“I had heaps of water, two good hoses and two good pumps but couldn’t get into the fire, so I ducked into the house, grabbed the picture off the wall, and went to the bunker. I probably stayed there for 10 minutes while the worst of the fire storm went over.”

The lithograph by Eugene von Guerard of the Buchan and Snowy Rivers. Donald Graham took the picture from his home before it burnt to the ground.

The lithograph by Eugene von Guerard of the Buchan and Snowy Rivers. Donald Graham took the picture from his home before it burnt to the ground. Credit:Joe Armao

The picture, a rare and important lithograph called Junction of the Buchan and Snowy Rivers, Gippsland, was created in 1867 by prominent colonial artist Eugene von Guerard.

But for Mr Graham, the importance of the picture lies beyond its beauty and artistic significance.

“His artistry is renowned for the detail,” he said. ”He painted what was there and not what he thought should be there. And from that you can see what the landscape was like then. It was open woodland, because that’s the way the Indigenous people had worked that landscape for 40,000 years.

“Over the last 150 years it’s changed from an open woodland because of the different practices or lack of burning if you like – a whole multitude of different approaches. It’s become forest and that ranges from pockets of rainforest to woodlands. But worse than that, it’s a forest choked with an understory of bark, dead leaves, debris and fallen trees to the point you couldn’t walk through it.”

He considered it a “powder keg” ready to blow.

“I couldn’t let [the lithograph] burn. It wasn’t the only copy in the world. But I just thought, ‘I can’t let that burn under the circumstances.’ It was trying to tell me something.”

Mr Graham wanted to burn some of the undergrowth in the forest, but the past two years were so dry it was too difficult. He used a machine to try to move some of it before this year’s fire season.

“We put [the bunkers] in then because it was inevitable that there was going to be a fire in the landscape, no doubt about it. The only question was when,” he said.

The bunker in Buchan at Donald Graham's property.

The bunker in Buchan at Donald Graham’s property. Credit:Joe Armao

Inside the bunkers there is little but a set of steps, a clock that tells you how long you have been underground, and a thermometer showing the outside temperature. On the night of the fire it hit 70 degrees.

The couple had prepared by putting their financial documents, photographs, computers, precious jewellery and Mr Graham’s guitar and tin whistles in the bunker before the fire hit.

Their house was razed and all that is left standing is the chimney and the fire place.

“When we first came out of the bunker, you might have thought it was Christmas Eve,” said Mr Graham. ”All the trees were alight. It was dark, smoke everywhere, but the landscape was sparkling. The ends of the trees were burning.”

The couple sat in their car with the airconditioning on until day break, when the extent of the destruction to their property became obvious. When the smoke cleared a few days later, they saw the blackened landscape.

The view from the Grahams' property before the fire.

The view from the Grahams’ property before the fire. Credit:Donald Graham

Despite the destruction caused by the fire, the Grahams count themselves lucky.

“People say to us it’s terrible, but we got out of it very well,” said Mr Graham. ”We got out unscathed, we got the most important and precious things we have. We will rebuild – it’s a hiccup. Life goes on.

“Farmers around here have woken up and the feed is gone, fences are gone, the houses their grandparents built are gone. We did very well.”

The pair, who for many years lived on King Island, where Mr Graham was a beef cattle farmer, before moving to East Gippsland, plan to rebuild in the same location.

“It is a beautiful spot,” Mr Graham said.

The fire at Buchan at the property of Kirstie Pearce in early January.

The fire at Buchan at the property of Kirstie Pearce in early January.

Cooler conditions forecast for the next week will provide a reprieve but now the Buchan community have turned their minds to rebuilding.

Luckily, the main township, including the pub and petrol station, was spared. Mr Graham said that, like with all small, rural communities, there were tales of hope within the devastation.

“It’s amazing how it has brought people out,” he said. ”It’s repainted the whole scene in terms of people’s attitudes and reactions to one another; disaster brings that out in people. That’s just what happens. The barriers drop.”

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