ON WEDNESDAY, February 16, 1983, Peter Schmidt was a volunteer CFA firefighter.
He watched as flames consumed the town of Upper Beaconsfield.
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"The scene was nothing less than horrendous. It was total chaos. I saw a woman on fire. Horses, too," says Peter, who is now CFA southern metropolitan regional director.
"We sheltered under the truck, opposite the hardware store, as fire fronts went through and I remember watching cans of paint on shelves burning and the lids popping off and outside 100-pound gas cylinders were exploding in all directions.
"And I remember arriving in the town and seeing the church catch fire and burn down."
This Sunday, 30 years after those terrible events, Peter will give a speech at that church, since rebuilt, in an Ash Wednesday anniversary remembrance service.
While the speech will be in front of Premier Ted Baillieu, Governor Alex Chernov and the state's highest officials, Peter says he will be emotional for very different reasons.
Not only did he come close to death that night, but he was also battling the same fire front that killed nine civilians nearby, as well as 12 CFA firefighters from Panton Hill, Nar Nar Goon and Narre Warren brigades.
"This was the highest single loss of CFA personnel in history," he says.
"It took me many years before I was able to go back to Upper Beaconsfield.
"One of the things that changed my life was Ash Wednesday - the experiences I had on that day and the things I saw. After Ash Wednesday I vowed to be with the CFA and make a difference."
The 58-year-old grew up on a pear and apple farm in Bunyip and - following in the footsteps of his father and older brother - joined the CFA as a volunteer in 1972, aged 18.
On Ash Wednesday, Peter was employed at Warragul's State Bank when he took the unusual step of leaving work early because of the conditions - "an extremely hot north-westerly and stifling heat" - and headed to the fire station.
A crew of three - with another joining them later - headed out in an Austin tanker.
"By today's standards those tankers are prehistoric. Now we have heat panels and roll-over crew protection and they're all diesel," Peter says.
"The Austin had none of that, and was petrol driven. On a hot day petrol engines get too hot and vaporise, so the truck stops, which is what happened to us."
Directed to Upper Beaconsfield, the crew arrived shortly after a wind change.
"We thought it would be a relief wind, but it turned into an horrendous south-westerly, which was the cause of the devastation. We were heading up a hill that ran parallel to a gully when, with me and another guy on the back of the truck, the fire came over the top of us.
"It was a minute or so but it seemed like forever. I hugged a crew member and said goodbye. We survived by sheltering behind the truck's tank."
After Upper Beaconsfield, they were directed to Nar Nar Goon North and were relieved about 3am.
"We didn't know about the loss of the firefighters until the next day," Peter recalls.
Peter said while Black Saturday is remembered for the tragic civilian loss, Ash Wednesday - when 75 people died across Victoria and South Australia - had a huge impact on the nation's psyche and forever changed the way fires were fought.
Now, strike teams are sent out rather than individual crews.
Training has improved, trucks and radios were dramatically modified, firefighting aircraft such as Elvis were introduced, while protective clothing, gloves, goggles and flash hoods became standard kit.
Peter himself contributed by joining the Pakenham Group, a combination of several brigades whose leaders travelled around Victoria sharing knowledge.
"There were a lot of lessons learned because we hadn't experienced a fire like that in modern times.
"It was the first bushfire of that magnitude that became a residential fire, which was on the urban/rural interface.
"Black Saturday we learnt more about community warnings and engagement. But I think Ash Wednesday was the catalyst to bring the CFA into the 21st century. Because of Ash Wednesday we have far better structures in place and didn't lose one firefighter on a CFA truck on Black Saturday."
Peter kept his vow following Ash Wednesday to serve in the CFA and since 1993 he has been a paid member, retiring his volunteer badge in 2001.
As regional director, he is responsible for 3300 volunteers and 250 staff, covering a geographic area that encompasses Dandenong to Bass Coast.
He says in the 40 years he's served in the CFA, fire intensity has become "far greater, there's no doubt about that".
"Fires now are becoming intense very quickly.
"People can stay and defend if they've done the right work, but it's the mental stamina as much as the physical that they must prepare for. The noise, the darkness, the smoke, the sound like 100 trains is absolutely frightening."