Saturday morning on the 7th February 2009 was forecast to be extremely hot and it was.  In Whittlesea, the weekend was going to be devoted to the Country Music Festival.  This was to be a three day event, starting at the Council “TajMahal” building with a reception and a bun fight for celebrities.   Then on the Saturday, which is what I am writing about, was the free street country music part with a talent contest and stalls and buskers in shop doorways and all street corners.  Line dancers, square dancers, Whittlesea Primary School choir, Wacca the drum playing giant koala and his guitar playing owner.   On the south end of the street was a semitrailer with a stage set for the talent contest with seating set out in front of it and the North end of the street another semitrailer with a stage for singers, country bands and musicians – All going very strong in the oppressive heat.  Also, well worth mentioning, was the Kinglake SES truck and crew to help anyone overcome with heat exhaustion.  Little did we know what was to develop that day.

There would be a few overcome with heat, as I saw old folk doing the square dance in a big group at Walnut Street corner.  Not a dance to be doing in 44 degree heat at 70 years of age.

I went to take a few photos as I contribute photos of local events to the Town Crier, a monthly produced by local volunteers.  It was about half past ten and really stifling hot, with a northwest wind, helping to build the heat.   I took about a dozen photos and walked the length of the street and then made for home and the cooler house.  Bryn, our youngest son was at Laurel Street, our home, with his two daughters on their normal weekend visit.  Around 12.30pm he got a phone call from Wandong CFA saying a fire had reached a pine plantation about a half mile from his property on Baden Drive, Wandong.  We were not greatly concerned, as there is a good fire brigade at Wandong who have handled many fires previously lit by pyromaniac idiots on the Hume Highway.  Bryn and the girls left us and headed for Wandong, which is about 13 mile away.  By the time he got there, things had completely changed.  Things had turned drastic.  His girls were evacuated from the scene to Mernda as his house and many others were now threatened.

As the fire swept along Baden Drive, one house after another was threatened and saved in turn, with the blaze gaining speed as it got the wind on the slope.  With the help of neighbours from houses not in the path of the inferno, the CFA and his garden hoses of huge length, they were fighting a losing battle for Bryn’s house.   A helicopter arrived overhead and doused the flame front and the men with drenching water.  I don’t know, but feel it is possible, that the helicopter saved more than the house with that water.  But, while that house and the next and the next and the next were saved in turn, houses further on the line were lost and tragically lives also lost at Wandong as the fire raced ahead of the men trying to control it.   But the evil genie was well and truly out of the bottle.  Bryn’s house is now surrounded by burnt ground and backed by about a mile stretch of burnt black ground and burnt trees.  He was very fortunate in having the house almost on the edge of the flame front.

Clonbinane

Not so fortunate was Jason and his wife Terry.   They had a house in Clonbinane, which was a beautiful valley, nestled against the north side of Mt Disappointment.  At present I have no account of how it happened from Jason’s point of view, but I know they had to abandon the house and everything including a four wheel drive Toyota and a nearly new tractor.  Everything burnt.  The heat had been so intense, it melted the aluminium cylinder head of the tractor and the metal ran like milk.   This has to involve a heat of 700 centigrade before aluminium melts.  This must have been on the other northern side of this uncontrolled and uncontrollable inferno.

From Whittlesea, we saw this monstrous cloud covering right across and extremely high over Mt Disappointment.  But never realised, never for an instance, thought the fire was racing at high speed across the mountain, totally concealed by this mount of dense smoke cloud.

I took photos of this spectacular cloud, all the time thinking the fire would be confined to Mt Disappointment as it has been a number of times in the past.  There have been, over the years, a number of fires, no doubt lit by a pyromaniac on the western side of Mt Disappointment.   At times the pyromaniac using the Hume Highway as a starting point for a quick getaway and the fires lit in this way were all contained with great difficulty but contained.   Not this time.  The difference was, we were and still are, in an intense dry spell so everything is tinder dry.  A high temp of 44 plus that day and a hot, strong NW wind which from video footage, drove the flame front at running pace.

As the afternoon progressed, we became aware of massive movement of CFA fire trucks and police through Whittlesea, not realising how close it was or where they were headed.  The fire at this time was probably within a mile to the north.   That evening, I was told, fire had hit Toorourrong Reservoir and Humevale and that there were deaths at Humevale.  I couldn’t believe what was being said.  My mind said “how could a fire get to Humevale in such a short time, maybe 3 to 4 hours from Wandong, a distance of 18 miles”.    All this hidden by the dense smoke being driven by the dry scorching hot wind.

Little did we realise that evening the Hell which was being released beyond Humevale, up the old Humevale to Kinglake winding road.  It roared at the top of the mountain ridge at Coombes Road, at present access to any but residents, is blocked by police road blocks.

It is reported only four houses remain of forty original houses.  I find it hard to believe there were forty houses along that ridge – I only go by the report.  Kinglake West was next and destroyed the garage, Tommy’s hut, or Rowlands old house and the shop badly damaged.

The fire front then went around the Kinglake West School and the Church area and they are still intact.   But the pincer movement of the split flame front now hit Kinglake Central and Kinglake.   The speed of the advance of the fires was so great, no warning got to residents of that area.   The smoke was so dense and ground hugging and the speed of the bushfires approach caught victims within no hope of escape.

It appears a car was going towards Kinglake to escape the fire at Kinglake West area and other cars were coming from Kinglake area to escape the fire front there.  The smoke was so dense, black like night the cars collided – about five cars involved.  Some people got help from other cars and escaped.  One car dented the side of the car on the pile up and kept going and the woman is alive but her house it burnt absolutely.  It is reported six people died in that tragedy.

The northern side of the fire front then hit Hazeldene and Flowerdale with loss of life and houses.   Access to the area is blocked and could be for a while yet, I am writing this into the third week after the fires went through.

Hazeldene

Hazeldene was a small village in the valley of the King Parrot Creek with store, petrol station, an Opportunity Shop and a couple of houses.  A very pleasant place, but in a gumtree covered valley with a tree shaded road to it.  I believe it is all practically burnt out.

Further on is the start of Flowerdale.  This is another really idyllic place for a home and a lot of people live there and go to and from Melbourne for work, despite its distance from town and the price of petrol.  But again, it is beside King Parrot Creek, surrounded by hills and a lot of it covered in gumtrees.  Here again there is loss of life and loss of property.  It is not really clear yet just how bad it amounts to as only the unfortunate residents are allowed there.

As I write, clearing of burnt sites has been halted as more bodies have been found in previously searched areas of Hazeldene and Kinglake.  The order to stop clearing is from the Victorian Coroner.

A woman with a huge task in front of her to try to identify the human remains of over 200 burnt bodies remnants.  Remembering, the heat generated has shown to be capable of melting aluminium.

Beyond Kinglake, the bushfire swept down off the mountain into the small villages of St Andrews and Strathewen.  Both quiet villages nestling against the base of the Kinglake ranges.  I have no idea of how badly these great little villages fared as access is again blocked.  I know they were both hit but I don’t know if loss of life was involved but certainly property was.   I have photos of both places taken in 2006 and I hope to go back when the police road blocks are lifted.

One of the areas badly hit in the Kinglake area was National Park road area.  This again is houses built on mountain ridges amidst gumtrees.   Another area hit is Bald Spur Road, again this is a road following a mountain ridge with gumtrees and houses.   I am writing this on the 23rd February which is 16 days since the fire hit these places mentioned.  On the news at noon, Warburton is being evacuated now, as it is threatened by bushfire at present about five miles distant from the township.

Warburton is a township of 2000 inhabitants.  It is set in a valley with fairly steep sides and heavy gumtree cover.

It has a main Sanitarium food factory as a source of employment.  They mention a fire scale 50 today as against a scale measure of 250 for the Saturday of the start of bushfire.  How the figure is arrived at, I have no idea.  I think it may be a combination of heat, wind speed and humidity and probably dryness of fuel load.

The danger is, if the fire breaks containment fire breaks and gets into tops of gumtrees in what they call a crown fire.   A crown fire travels faster than a surface fire.  In such cases, spot fires from embers can light up to five miles ahead of the fire front.  I hope this doesn’t occur today, as Warburton, in that scenario, would be at very high risk by its situation in the trees and valley.

The reporter said, this is a continuation of the Kinglake fire.  If that is so, Warburton is a good 2 hour drive from Whittlesea and 50 miles at least away.

On the Sunday in Whittlesea, it was planned to have a Country Music presentation in the showgrounds with well-known country music artists performing and quite a stiff entrance fee for the pleasure of attending.   But it was a case of “the best laid plans of mice and men oft gan aglee”.  The event had to be cancelled as the showgrounds was and still is taken over by the CFA as a staging point for CFA crews and their vehicles from sites all over Victoria.  I have seen names of Victorian townships from Maryborough and Geelong West, Macedon and much farther afield, arriving and leaving in convoys of four vehicles, bound for the still uncontrolled fire front.  The showgrounds has TV and news media vans in numbers, with their satellite dish antennas beaming out news and pictures to the whole world.   Also lines of blue, igloo shaped tents in a long row, for the men involved.  Meals are provided at the football club rooms, which have never been busier at this providing for these very many men.

On the Sunday the 8th, a road block was set up at the bridge on the Kinglake road out of Whittlesea.   This allowed only emergency vehicles at first, not allowing residents of the Kinglake area back into the fire affected area.   This was needed at first as fallen trees blocked the roads and there were fatalities in burnt cars and in homes.  A convoy of ambulances with police escort had this job to do.  After about two days, the police escorted Kinglake district residents back to the area.   Many went back to nothing left of their homes and had to be provided with emergency accommodation.

Aftermath

Accommodation was arranged in part of Kinglake and Yea and Whittlesea for everyone affected.  All residents coming and going from the affected areas have now been issued an identification wristband for the area.   Wandong residents have a big yellow W sticker on their car windows.  Today, 23rd, Kinglake, Flowerdale, Hazeldene, St Andrews and Strathewen are still road blocked.  Marysville was devastated by a bushfire from a different source with massive losses of home and lives.   I have no knowledge of that fire apart from what I have read.

Whittlesea Cricket Ground, Walker Reserve, on the Sunday 8th, became transformed from a picture perfect cricket ground to a bushfire refuge and recovery centre.  People and goods started to pour in.   When the Radio and TV showed the plight and losses of the fire areas, everyone wanted to help.   Within a couple of days, there was a huge accumulation of donated food and drink and clothing and donate money instead of goods as they had an abundance.   Besides the cricket pavilion, volunteers struggled to bring order to a mass of boxes and bags of amazing quantity and variety.   The Community Centre on Laurel St next to the cricket pavilion, set up an information centre for the bushfire area, to give out what information they had on persons who lived in the Kinglake Flowerdale area.

The Salvation Army took over a factory on Laurel Street to help those in need with help and supplies.   Two huge containers arrived at the Salvation Army Whittlesea depot and the Anglican Op Shop to cope with the problems.  Erected a tent marque and offered free clothing and goods to bushfire affected people.

In a couple of days, a really huge show tent was erected on the Cricket ground by the Whittlesea Council for accommodation, meals and shelter for those displaced by the fires.  Also they installed a monster TV screen which could be viewed from many yards away.

We live on Laurel Street and it is amazing to see all manner of supplies coming in.  Things you would never think of, such as a van full of Pizzas for the fire fighters and people with bags of bread rolls.  Everyone wants to help.

The Whittlesea Secondary College netball court was and still is being used as a distribution area for bedding, clothing, household equipment etc.

One chap, who lost a home in Kinglake, borrowed our trailer in order to get bedding and blankets and all sorts from the netball court as they had lost everything.  He said he would return the trailer as soon as he could – it came back after about a fortnight really spotlessly clean.   He said it had been well used in the meantime.  I asked him how he was going.  He said, “I’m all right, but my wife is a bit traumatised, my two girls are doing very well”.

He had to go as he had to pick the girls up at school.  I didn’t ask where.

I went to Church on the 22nd – a National Day of Mourning.   The bloke who sat next to me, I know him and his family from attending the church.  I knew he came from Kinglake West and he has a great swag of children, mostly girls.  I take it, all the family are OK.  A lot of them were not there at Church, so they are billeted out I hope.   They usually filled and overflowed a pew.

Today is the 25th which is 18 days since the fire.  This fire is still giving problems in the Warbuton area with half the town evacuated yesterday because of the fire threat.  The roads out of Whittlesea are still blocked by police on the Humevale Kinglake Road corner and the Ridge Road Whittlesea which runs behind the Yan Yean Reservoir.   The Yan Yean Reservoir Park is also closed to visitors.

Many stories of the tragedies of the fire are being told.  One is of the family of Donna Smith.  I only know her maiden name as she was a local girl, the daughter of the Whittlesea policeman 10 or so years ago.   Her complete family, of I am told, two girls and her husband died at Strathewen – A place hardly getting a mention in the papers – but still tragic deaths there.

Today is the 7th of March, exactly a month since the fire swept through Wandong, Kinglake, Humevale, St Andrews, Strathewen.   Bushfires combined and burnt Flowerdale, Hazeldene, Glenburn and Marysville, Narbathong, Snobbs Creek and many other isolated houses and farm places.   Toorourong Reservoir is heavily damaged from reports of workers who have had to enter the place.  At present, a month after the event, Kinglake and Humevale roads are blockaded by police 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The TV tonight said the Kinglake Road would be open next week – I will wait till I see the blockade lifted.  It is said to be because of ongoing body searches, but any body lying for a month in hot weather would be found by a search dog’s acute smell sense.

As soon as I am allowed into the burnt area, I intend to take photos, not of burnt houses as we all have seen far too many of them, photos of burnt areas to be able to go back to the same spot in six months’ time and show the recovery of the place.

Matt  February 2009