The 2009 Kinglake Fires

For the last days of 2005 and the first days of 2006, I stayed with my friends Anna and Will, in their extraordinarily beautiful home in Kinglake, in the mountains north of Melbourne, as described in The Jolly Pilgrim. It was an affecting and emotive few days.

Three years later, that home was destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires that took place on and around 7 February 2009. They were the deadliest bushfires in modern Australian history. In the Kinglake area alone, 1,200 homes were destroyed and 120 people died. Anna and Will survived.

Below is Will’s account of their experience.

 

 

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, by Will Polak

On 7 February 2009 Australia’s most destructive bushfires (so far) destroyed more than 2,000 homes and took more than 250 precious lives. The resulting scenes of devastation were beyond anything that any of us had ever dreamed or imagined. All on a sunny Saturday afternoon at home with my pregnant partner, Anna, and our very brave and resilient two year old Olivander (Olie).

Will and Anna's house, before the fires

As per usual summer fire precautions we mowed and racked the yards, cleaned the gutters, tested the generator, water pump and hoses and did a reasonable job of fire-proofing the house. Talk began of fire plans and who would be where and when. Anna and Olie were to go to Anna’s mum’s and I was to stay and defend the property with the local “fire guard”. In the inferno to come some of these fireguards did well saving neighbouring properties, as well their own. Others, like ours, did not connect so well. The radio was tuned to ABC Local 774 all day and talked monotonously of fires in the “Kilmore area”. These fires are still burning a month later, and have been renamed twice to “the Kilmore-Kinglake complex” and then to “Kilmore-Murrindindi complex” as they crossed human-defined boundaries.

Our recent extension had done its job in providing an outdoor area for play and relaxation, the garden, slowly landscaped over the past few years, was beginning to take shape, suited to the conditions and pleasing to our senses.

Around lunchtime on Thursday 5 February, I heard a prediction on ABC Local Radio that at about 5.30 pm on Saturday afternoon weather conditions would present the worst bushfire conditions that Victoria had ever seen. The sustained high pressure system was pushing hot air across central Australia and northwest Victoria towards Melbourne in the south. At about 5 pm this was to be met by a massive cold front that would continue to dictate weather conditions for weeks to come. The clash of these two systems was likely to produce dry lightening storms, winds exceeding 120 kilometres per hour and extraordinarily hot temperatures.

Inside the house, before the fires

It was hot. It had been hot for days with three in a row over 43 degrees, having crept up through the 30’s the week prior. Combine this with no rain since Christmas and you have the perfect conditions for what was to occur. On “Black Saturday” it pushed 49 degrees in places, and that was before the fires.

We were making an early dinner as we noticed a puff of smoke on the horizon. Should we make another summer roll, or get out and prepare for a possible fire? Thus far Radio 774 had mentioned nothing about a fire where were looking. The DSE and CFA websites also suggested fires were at least 50 kilometres away, about 10 hours minimum in fire-travel time. The smoke was just was not supposed to be there. Our neighbour, Steve, had seen the same smoke and knocked at our door. That chat convinced me to stop the dinner and start fire preparations in earnest. And I, in turn, convinced him that in the absence of any fire fighting capability he should pack up and leave, quickly.

Then the power went out.

Until then, we had been dressed to survive the scorching heat of a record breaking day, not a raging firestorm. We all changed into fire-resistant clothing, cotton and wool for the most part. This was a small but important step that many others late that summer afternoon did not manage in time. As Anna was preparing to put Olie in the car, the call came that her mum was under “ember attack” – burning embers falling from the sky driven from nearby fires on strong winds. What we did not know, as the sky overhead began slowly to darken, was that Strathewen to the south was burning.

A quick trip up the road for batteries found the CFA blocking our most likely exit, reducing the possible exits from 4 to 2 with a road closure on the Melba Highway. The hardware store’s doors were open, but was deserted. In something out of the movies, I dropped a note on the bench and threw an armful of batteries into the car. When I got home Anna had called a friend to get more information. She also had the car packed and her eight-year-old daughter ready to leave.

I began filling the roof gutters with water when from my elevated vantage point I saw that the small puff of smoke on the horizon was now a wall of flame reaching 20 to 30 metres above the tree tops, clearly being driven directly towards us on strong winds directly from the south. Preceding the flames was a growing roar like a hundred jet airplanes on a fly-by. Anna and Olie were getting in the car when I yelled that they were not going anywhere and to prepare for the fire-front. Our friends and their daughter arrived within moments, wisely pulling into our drive rather than continuing on the road out of town.

Sinks, buckets and baths were all full, the generator going. Every spare towel and blanket was quickly soaked and laid across window and door frames, both inside and out. The world went black. The roar filled our ears, the children screamed. The world outside exploded into flames. Star the kelpie dog raced between Anna’s legs and out the door, not to be seen again. Children were cared for, one in a firm grip about the wrist, the other under the carpet telling her mum when shaken for sign’s of life, “ leave me alone mum, I’m lying low and breathing!” Fires were fought, supplies of ice and water were provided for the workers.

The unkempt, overgrown jungle on the other neighbour’s block meant that the fire at the eastern end of block continued to burn long after the first fire front went through, effectively creating a secondary fire front. In addition, due to the topography, a third fire front pushed across from the west, hurling its own collection of fireballs.

Smoke from the Kinglake bushfires

The water stopped flowing in hoses, and different parts of the house became inaccessible as timbers began to burn. The laserlight sheeting, creating a beautifully bright undercover area in all other weather conditions, became a death-trap as molten plastic dripped from the sky – as my singed woollen beanie can attest to. As the level of fire activity reduced to a bearable level, I made my way to the water tanks equipped with buckets. All that were there, in the pitch black lit by the now burning eaves, were blobs of plastic in the ground. One appeared to hold a pool of water in the base and I dumped in the buckets only to be met by an inch of water followed by more melted plastic. Without water, there was nothing more we could do to save our home. Now it was all about living to see another day. My mortality hit me in a hurry. Mine, Olie’s, Anna’s, our friends’, their daughter’s and the countless others consumed in the fires raging around us. It’s a stunning thought to have passing through your mind, “we are all going to die”. The only option was to leave, but where do you go when the whole world is on fire? In addition, the second strongest bushfire advice, after “leave early or be prepared to fight”, is to never drive your car during a fire. Indeed, many lost their lives this way.

We managed to have a conversation that went something like this:
“We have to get out of here, now!”
“You’re not supposed to drive,”
“We haven’t got a choice,”
“The cars are still there!”
“We’ll take one car so we don’t get separated,”
“Take our car, it’s the 4WD,”
“We have parked your car in with our car!”
“Take both cars! If one gets into trouble, we’ve still got the other!”
“I can’t find my keys!”

The keys were found by groping in the pitch black using “body memory”, as the stories later told. Wrapped in wet clothes and blankets we ran to the cars and climbed in. Incredibly, they seemed safe to drive. The concrete carport and gravel driveway lead due south to the road and had effectively created a fireless zone protecting both vehicles. We later found the duco to have bubbled, but with thick gloves on our hands we never touched the car exterior, so we will never know how hot they may had been. The air was smoke filled and pitch black, offering near zero visibility. Our friends reversed fast out of the drive nearly pitching over the two-metre high embankment. A quick three-point turn and they were away. For a terrifyingly long moment, Olie and I sat in the car while Anna was in the burning house. A moment that, in retrospect, could have been used to rip my hard-drive and its precious contents from the wall and thrown it into the car. Just as Olie posed the critical question, “where’s a-mummy?” Anna emerged from the flaming building with an armful of water bottles rescued from the fridge. “We might need these tonight,” she says calmly.

Remarkably, the road was reasonably clear, not that we could see it. Fortunately, I had tail lights to follow and could see enough to dodge any burning branches. The first building coming into town is the hardware store. There was little left of it and the petrol-bowsers were spewing forth jets of flame and toxic fumes. To our relief, the car is air-conditioning did an admirable job in providing us with air that was both cool and breathable.

The house's water tanks, after the fire

We were one of many groups with the same last-ditch plan. The town centre was fast filling with cars and people. As we were directed by the last available Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer, we watched behind him as a car parked close to at least a dozen others burst into flames. I yelled, and he ran armed with a small domestic extinguisher. Somehow, thankfully, he contained that fire. We did not see how, as we were focused on finding a safe place to park ourselves. We confirmed our safety, tended to burns, rehydrated and went looking for others who had survived. The fire having already burned everything that would burn, other than cars, it was clear that we would be relatively safe, at least from flames.

It was a surreal and emotional evening with people of all ages in various states of survival and distress walking or driving from the smoke and flames to the relative oasis of the town centre. Fires continued to burn through the night all around us, accompanied by intermittent explosions, collapsing houses and falling trees. Olie and I spent the night in the car, while Anna (to our great distress) was whisked away in a police car to run the fire gauntlet back to the Northern Hospital, suffering smoke-inhalation amidst fears for our unborn baby.

Olie and I took the first escorted convoy back to Melbourne at 4.30pm the following afternoon. The poor ladies in Anna’s respiratory ward were convinced that we had brought the fire with us, such was our state, and had the ward nurses running in search of a fire.

Will and Anna's house, after the fires

After another 48 hours, just as the car was being towed away, we received a phone call. Star the dog had been found by a friend. Curiously, it was this moment of relief that wrought a flood of tears from me. The tow-truck driver turned and walked away to hide his own wet eyes. Not only had Star survived by hiding in a wombat hole down by the creek, we assume, but she had spent the past two nights with a woman still depressed from the end of a failed marriage five years earlier. For the first time in many years this woman, as she tells the story, had found the capacity to open her heart, to deeply give and receive love. Together they had slept wrapped in blankets on the couch with Star’s head held close to the woman’s heart. For this woman, her survival with Star was a life-changing experience.

And so begins the recovery, the rebuilding and the stories. The tales of heroism, survival and terrible tragedy. Everyone I meet has a story to share about someone they know affected by these fires, and even if they do not know someone, each person seems to have a story to connect them to this event. The bigger story includes the incredible generosity of Victorians, Australians and others around the world in contributing to the rebuilding of the lives and communities that have been devastated by these fires. For some, the ongoing story is one of survival, for others it is about change and resilience. For many the weather conditions that led to this event confirm the reality of climate change and the need for a new approach to living and surviving in south eastern Australia.

- Will Polak, 2009

 

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