December 19 last year was a scorcher by any measure.
Temperatures which exceeded 40 degrees coupled with howling winds to provide the perfect cocktail for fire amid the dry farmland south-east of Ballarat.
Scotsburn resident Roger Skimming had been eyeing off the long grass along his fence line for days, and armed with a new tractor and slasher, the 47-year-old cut the overgrown turf in his elderly neighbour’s paddock.
After heading back to his house, Mr Skimming returned to move the tractor as the heat continued unabated. It was then the power take-off drive on the slasher snapped, causing a spark which would go on to burn more than 4600 hectares and destroy 12 homes.
“It was the quickest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mr Skimming said of the rapidly growing blaze. “On that day, once the fire had started, I just wanted to die on the spot.”
The fire quickly raced away and spread to the surrounding communities of Clarendon, Durham Lead and Elaine before night’s end. Mr Skimming called his closest neighbour to warn him of the oncoming danger, before frantically dialing 000.
LISTEN TO MR SKIMMING’S HEARTBREAKING INTERVIEW HERE
As hundreds of people evacuated the region, Mr Skimming was unable to leave. With no means of communication, he was left to dwell on the events of that afternoon as the fire continued to rage.
“I never slept for weeks afterwards, but that night I was putting little spot fires out next door, in the backyard,” Mr Skimming said. “(I was) just completely physically and mentally wrecked.”
In the days that followed, police would call regularly to ensure none of the numerous death threats directed at Mr Skimming had been carried out.
As the dust began to settle on the fire ground and the community efforts to rally around those affected began, rumours around the culprit of the fire ran rife. “I’ve never denied it,” Mr Skimming said, determined to set the record straight. “I correct people when I hear a different story.”
The Scotsburn local was charged in June on summons with causing fire during a period of extreme weather conditions and failure to carry prescribed fire suppression equipment, before pleading guilty in October and receiving a $1550 fine with $79.50 costs.
VIEW THE PHOTOS FROM THE DAY AND THE SUBSEQUENT AFTERMATH HERE
Surprisingly, it was Mr Skimming’s failure to carry a fire extinguisher which generated the penalty. While operating farm machinery on a total fire ban day is discouraged by the Country Fire Authority, it is allowed if the work is deemed essential.
While the punishment might seem insignificant in comparison to the sizable losses of the fire, the emotional toll on Mr Skimming has been enormous.
Weekly meetings with a psychologist have become one of the few regularities in a year which has seen the breakdown of a marriage and the loss of regular work. After a year of living just metres from the site of the start of the fire, the welder has decided to sell his property and start afresh with just his caravan and ute.
“The last 12 months have been the most difficult part of my life,” Mr Skimming said. “There's nothing I can do to change what's happened and all along I've felt like I wanted to be punished in some way.
“The only thing I could say is sorry… There's no excuses, there's nothing but sorry.”
As another fire season approaches, the land which surrounds Mr Skimming’s property could not contrast more with this time in 2015. Ground to one side boasts knee-high grass which is yet to dry out, while blackened trees have sprung back to life with intense colour on the other.
“It's a horrible thing to have happened, but I hope that this will save more lives later on,” Mr Skimming said about speaking out about the fire.