Saturday, February 14, 2009

Too many bushfire tales. Too few.

Last night's sunset over Melbourne. Not moisture - smoke. JDK.

There are too many stories coming out of the bushfire disaster. But for every miraculous escape there are those that had no escape. Then there's those that can't tell stories because they are too much. It's a reminder that the real world and nature doesn't provide a package warning, like those who think we can organise our world into safe compartments.

One friend (safe) writes how their granddaughter shouldn't have seen or heard the things she did while fighting to defend her house (successfully) with her father - and on the journey into town afterwards with the burnt cars and dead in them.

(The death toll has been halted at 181 for four days now, with no press comment or official update. The official estimates are still in the order of 2-300. Less than a week ago, we thought 20 was too high.)

Maybe the countryside should have a warning on it. Do people need to qualify to live there? It's clear that if you knock down the trees to clear what you decide is a reasonable firebreak, you can end up paying A$100,000 in costs and court fines - but you get your house - the only one in a 2km area. The Sheahans have a doubly bitter victory.

It's clear that we didn't do enough to stop people dying in unimaginably horrible ways - what should have been done different by who - remains open, but lots of people paid the biggest price.

Just one article among many. The Age.

On the hill, it's too soon to talk, drink or cry

Chris Johnston. February 14, 2009

Irish Maggie has lots of parties. Her pig survived the horrific fire that destroyed most of the town a week ago by digging a hole and getting in it.


The Kinglake CFA firefighters, 12 of whom lost their homes, saw horrible things — some of the most horrible things imaginable involving people and fire. The latest count is 39 dead up here, about 1000 homeless. A street called Pine Ridge lost 21 people. You hear stories. They tell you things but ask you not to repeat them — things about children, about the state half-alive people were in when they stumbled into view through the fire and about what happened next.


We already know things happened too fast in Kinglake. The wind changed and the fire gathered force up steep hills. Not bushfire but firestorm. No vegetation left, no leaves, no rustling. Dead silence.


But there are some facts of physics that might illustrate what really happened. Things melted. A Kinglake West potter returned to find the moulds she puts in her kiln had been destroyed through heat that was too intense. At Kinglake, part of the trailer of Glenn Dawson's truck, made of aluminium, dissolved. It's just silver rivulets on the ground now. The melting point for aluminium is 660 degrees. Glass headlights on his ute melted too — that happens about 1400 degrees.

He got the three youngest of his four kids out early in the day and saved his bluestone house, even though his fire pump melted. At one stage he edged open a sliding door to chuck water onto flames and the whole door blew off. Embers rushed in and the ridge capping on his roof exploded.

Ask him if he's lucky and he just laughs, because around his place people hid in wombat holes to survive.


What about the coolroom story? No one's told that one yet. Dennis Exton has a market garden. At one point 12 people sheltered in his coolroom — nothing more than a big fridge in his shed. Two had two broken ankles because they had been in a car crash in the dark, crawled into a burning paddock, then got helped up to the Extons. He had his kids, aged six and 13 months, in there too, plus their mother, while he fought the fire.

In the coolroom, no one spoke. Mr Exton was running around outside sucking air out of empty plastic bottles to keep breathing within explosions and that jet-aircraft noise everyone talks about. Inside, silence. An hour they were in there — kids, strangers, the injured.

This was going into last Sunday, the damage done. No ambulances, no police, no fire vehicles except the local ones, no way up or down the hill, no helicopters or rescue aircraft. Corpses in cars beside the road. Unimaginable horrors yet to be found. No birds in the sky.

...As the sun came up, Mr Exton heard a clanking sound coming up the road. It was a DSE fire truck, the first one he'd seen. It had no rubber on its tyres, but on it went, through the carnage.


Quite a few up the hill have raised Australian flags. Maybe on a piece of steel or a bit of fence or the chimney, something useless now that is all that remains of their previous life. None are at half-mast, not one. Despite everything.

What do you give people who've lost everything? It's their call.

While they decide, we can offer our hope. We need to learn from the their losses, and we can offer help. Today we got to do something worthwhile, as I'm sure Bev will describe. That made it a better day.


No comments: