Her beauty and her terror

Her beauty and her terror

14 February 2009

published by www.theage.com.au


Australia — You need only stand on the ridge of Kinglake’s mountain to know why people loved living there. There is – was – a house on the ridge that only a week ago had one of Victoria’s most sublime views. Like so many of its neighbours, it is a ruin now, little but ash and weirdly twisted metal and out the front, on blackened earth, a kangaroo and a dog, grotesque, stiffened in death.

Look beyond these ghastly things, though, and your eye travels through the space that the house so recently inhabited, across the valley far below and clear to city towers and, at night, the twinkling suburbs of Melbourne.

Kinglake (a strange tag for a lakeless mountain-top hamlet, named for a 19th-century English author, AlexanderW. Kinglake) was once a gold-digging and timber-getting settlement about as remote from the city as the imagination could stretch.

But Melbourne is a restless beast. In the past 70 years, its population has swelled from a million to about 3.8million. It has pushed out of its river valley and up into the spine of the Great Dividing Range to the north-east, devouring what seemed distant villages in the hills, turning dreaming places such as Healesville into outer suburbs.

Little Kinglake and its neighbours strung along the high ridge – Kinglake Central, Kinglake West, Toolangi and Pheasant Creek – are an easy and appealing drive from the city, just 61kilometres away, and those intent on the lifestyle that has become known as a “tree change” have found the high country irresistible. It is cooler in the hills, often misty, forested with peppermint and stringybark and ash, the gullies lush with dripping ferns.

Places like these bear no resemblance to suburbs. You could have a horse or two, grow olives or berries, let the kids roam free, feel part of a tight little community and still commute to work in the city if need be. And there were those views. Most Januarys, visitors flock in for the annual Raspberry Fair, a lot of them hankering to live in just such a perfect place.

And then came the superheated malevolence of Saturday, February 7, 2009, and all the contented certainties of bucolic life were blown away.


“And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires, there happened … the most disastrous forest calamity the state of Victoria has known.” Photo: Wayne TaylorWe do not need here to describe the shock and the anguish etched into the faces of those who poured out of the hill towns, nor subject ourselves to their stories of panic and loss and heroism. We have all seen and read these things, been numbed by them in the pages of newspapers, been confronted by the televised images, listened endlessly to the stories broadcast on radio.

From Kinglake, those who did not perish fled down the incandescent road to Whittlesea, survivors from the ashen town that was Marysville struggled in to Alexandra, residents who had escaped the flattened Flowerdale found safety and the kindness of strangers in Yea, and others from places such as Buxton, Glenburn, Narbethong, Strath Creek, Taggerty, Thornton, Toolangi and Yarck went every which way – or stayed and fought on.

Away to the north-west, Bendigo remains dumbfounded that fire ripped through tree-change communities among the old goldfields scrubland and tore into the regional city, reaching little more than a stroll from the town hall.

To the east, Churchill and broad reaches of Gippsland are doubly traumatised by the deaths of neighbours and the belief that an arsonist caused the terror. In the north-east, the Kiewa and Ovens valleys and their farmers and townsfolk strive to put behind them their own battle with fires.

Way to the west, in Horsham and other places, the story is hardly different. And everywhere, the grime-rimmed eyes of exhausted firefighters and emergency workers and volunteers have that haunted look that the writer Michael Herr described in Dispatches, his book on American soldiers in Vietnam, as “the thousand-yard stare”.

It was, the headlines screamed inaccurately, the greatest natural disaster the nation had suffered.

This reporter was reminded this week by an old colleague, Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times, of the 14,000 who died of Spanish flu in the few months after World WarI, the 550 Sydneysiders who died of bubonic plague when Australia was preparing to federate, the hundreds who died from flames and heat stress in the bushfires of 1895, the 410 who perished in the 1889 cyclone at Bathurst Bay, far north Queensland, and single shipwrecks in which hundreds were lost.

None of this reduces the impact of the undeniably tragic event that occurred last Saturday: 200 or more lives lost, most of them in a single evening. Amid the mourning and the horror, voices can be heard declaring that climate change is to blame.
Perhaps, though, our arithmetic, our memories and our conclusions are more askew than we imagine.
Victoria’s population is now about 5.22million. In 1939, the state had 1.85million people and on Black Friday of that year, on January13, no less than 71 people perished (not taking into account another 400 or so who died of heatstroke across the land around that time).

Simple multiplication would suggest that had the state been as populated as it is now, Black Friday’s death toll might have been remarkably similar to the dismaying figures that haunt us this week – greater, perhaps, had tree change been a phenomenon in 1939.

As Victoria prepares to place the February7 fires and their causes on trial before a royal commission, it is worth studying the spare, elegant opening paragraphs of Judge Leonard Stretton’s Royal Commission report on the Black Friday tragedy 70 years ago.

“In the State of Victoria, the month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought, which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season,” Stretton wrote.

“For more than 20 years the state of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run.

“Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves.

“The rich plains, denied their beneficent rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture.

“Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger, they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.

“And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires, which were almost state-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the state of Victoria has known.

“These fires were lit by the hand of man.

“Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air.

“Generally, the numerous fires, which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ‘under control’ as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, January13.

“On that day it appeared that the whole state was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished.

“Throughout the land there was daytime darkness. At one mill, desperate but futile efforts were made to clear of inflammable scrub the borders of the mill and mill settlement. All but one person, at that mill, were burned to death, many of them while trying to burrow to imagined safety in the sawdust heap.

“Horses were found, still harnessed, in their stalls, dead, their limbs fantastically contorted. The full story of the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance and perhaps of something worse.

“Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through. Other heavy woodwork disappeared, leaving no trace.

“Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt and destroyed to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored by the slow chemistry of nature. Acres upon acres of the soil itself can be retained only by the effort of man in a fight against natural erosive forces.

“The speed of the fires was appalling. They leaped from mountain peak to mountain peak, or far out into the lower country, lighting the forests six or seven miles in advance of the main fires. Blown by a wind of great force, they roared as they travelled. Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise all that they touched.

“Houses of brick were seen and heard to leap into a roar of flame before the fires had reached them. Some men of science hold the view that the fires generated and were preceded by inflammable gases, which became alight. Great pieces of burning bark were carried by the wind to set in raging flame regions not yet reached by the fires.

“Such was the force of the wind that, in many places, hundreds of trees of great size were blown clear of the earth, tons of soil, with embedded masses of rock, still adhering to the roots; for mile upon mile the former forest monarchs were laid in confusion, burnt, torn from the earth, and piled one upon another as matches strewn by a giant hand.”

With a minor alteration here or there to take account of 70 years of change, Judge Stretton could have written those precise words this week.

No word there about climate change. Instead, he wrote, “Nature … sends the abnormal season, which encourages the major fire, which consumes the forest”.

There was much made over the past week of the unbearable heatwave that preceded the latest bushfires, and it remains true that the run of plus-40-degree temperatures is the most severe since accurate records began.

Yet it is worth knowing that Victoria’s single-highest maximum temperature, 50.8 degrees, was recorded in Mildura on January 7, 1906. On January10, 1939, three days before Black Friday, it was 47.2 degrees in Mildura. It remained fiercely hot around the state until the cataclysm, when Melbourne recorded 45.6degrees, a record that remained until February9 this year when the city hit an appalling 46.4degrees.

None of this disproves the theory that climate change is upon us – a notion almost universally accepted by climatologists and scientists in related fields, and which grants a new urgency to the need to prepare for more frequent extremes in weather and their repercussions.

However, the spooky similarities in events 70years apart do give undeniable support to Stretton’s conviction about nature’s “abnormal” seasons encouraging major fires that consume Victoria’s forests.

Last Saturday was no unique event. It is part of a savage south-east Australian continuum. To it could be added Ash Wednesday, February16, 1983 – another drought, another period of high temperatures (43degrees on the day of the fires), another day of fierce dry wind. Seventy-five lives were extinguished – 47 in Victoria and 28 in South Australia – and more than 2000 homes went up in smoke.

Add to this numerous more-localised fires, with less spectacular death tolls, recalled whenever old people gather and begin yarning. My own family’s history of 160 years or so farming, a lot of it in thousands of hectares of bush, has built up quite a lore. One of my great-grandfathers, in his late 70s or early 80s, got caught up in Black Friday’s fury in far south-western Victoria, electing to stay and fight for his country home while the police evacuated his family.

The fire was too fast and powerful for him and as the house burnt, he jumped a fence, caught his foot between the pickets and, trapped, was roasted as the flames roared over him. A tough old coot, he survived, treated for weeks with nothing but a blanket tossed over his scorched back, his nurses pouring water on it to keep him sane.

It was the closest any of the extensive branches of the family came to perishing in a bushfire – they learned the dangers and took precautions that have fallen out of favour and are now being fiercely debated all over again.

They cleared firebreaks and used fire against fire. My father as a young fellow learned from his father, who had learned from his and so on back through the generations, to do what the Aboriginal people had done: dribble fire into the forest in the cool of autumn, reducing fuel build-up.

All those years ago, Judge Stretton made a number of recommendations about what should be done to limit the state’s fire risk, and some of them still form the basis for Victoria’s fire control systems.

However, some of them have also fallen by the wayside or have been twisted to the point where they are unrecognisable.
Governments, bureaucrats, agencies and ideologically driven groups of all stripes have a habit of tearing apart the findings of inquiries. The most extreme example in recent times was a full-blooded assault by the ACT Government on the coroner inquiring into Canberra’s disastrous fire attack of 2003, in which four lives were lost, hundreds were injured and almost 500 homes destroyed.

Chief Minister Jon Stanhope tried unsuccessfully to have the coroner, Maria Doogan, replaced during the inquiry, accusing her of “apprehended bias”. When she finally brought down her report, which was deeply critical of Stanhope for deliberately downplaying the seriousness of the fire threat and in general scathing of the Emergency Services Bureau’s handling of the crisis, Stanhope simply said Doogan was wrong.

It is fair to say that with a royal commission being established in Victoria, everyone with an interest – from the top of the Government to local authorities, from firefighters and emergency services agencies through to home owners – will be on high alert to ensure their reputations and careers and beliefs survive intact. Among the more interested parties will be that diverse group called environmentalists (by their admirers) or (by their antagonists) greenies.

There is this week a palpable mood that could turn into a serious backlash against some of the developments driven by green movements, deserved or not.

Trees and the comfort they give the human eye and soul have become almost sacred objects in some local government areas. Despite the judge’s long-ago insistence that forest litter be cleared, Victorian authorities have made it all but illegal to pick up a fallen branch for firewood, let alone cut down scrub or a tree.

Some of the crustier characters from the scorched hills outside Melbourne noted this week that the Murrindindi Shire, which covers much of the worst-hit areas, encouraged landholders to plant as many trees as possible around their homes to ensure the bush character of the area was maintained. Many, of course, needed no such encouragement – it was precisely because of the bush character that people had moved to the hills or to the forested outskirts of cities.

The judge also recommended permanent firebreaks at forest margins where settlements were considered in danger. These should be determined according to local conditions, he said, but could be up to 800metres wide.

The Age reported this week that a family from Reedy Creek, in Mitchell Shire, had been fined $50,000 and spent a further $50,000 in legal costs because they bulldozed 250 trees to clear their property of fire danger.

The shire allows clearing only within six metres of homes, but Liam Sheahan and his family cleared 100metres. Their house is one of the few in Reedy Creek to have survived last weekend’s bushfire, and the only one still standing in a two-kilometre area. Sheahan believes his illegal action has been vindicated.

Stark evidence lay on the road between Kinglake and Whittlesea this week that trees, so handsome on a fine day, can kill in numerous ways when things turn bad. Burnt-out cars that had smashed into logs fallen on the road were not removed for days.

A day after witnessing these dreadful tombs, this reporter found himself driving between Tallarook and Yea. Large trees on both sides of the road formed an archway overhead, and it was very beautiful. It was also impossible to ignore the ABC’s warnings on the car radio that fire still burnt across the hills, and the thought that this lovely avenue could turn vicious seemed a paradox as bitter as the serene view from that destroyed house on the Kinglake ridge.

Stretton also insisted that the Forests Commission, now known as the Department of Sustainability and Environment, “must recognise the necessity for protective burning in its areas and should respect local forest lore. Where practicable, autumn burning is preferable for protective purposes.”

The department does oversee fuel-reduction burns – leading its detractors to dub the DSE “the Department for Sparks and Embers” – but finds itself criticised both for doing too much and doing too little burning. Some local councils won’t allow it at all.

About 400,000 Victorian hectares have been subjected to prescribed burns over the past three years – almost exactly the same amount of land that has been destroyed since last weekend.

The fact remains that vast swathes of national parks and other public forests, once given those regular “cool-burn” treatments by leaseholders to promote grass growth for stock and to prevent hot fires fuelled by the understorey, have been allowed to revert to near-impenetrable bush.

Some environmentalists label prescribed burning as a threat to endangered species and environmental diversity, and a report this week said the Federal Government had received a submission from an unnamed group demanding it be outlawed across the nation.

A former meteorologist specialising in fire weather for the Bureau of Meteorology, David Packham, retorted that elements among green groups were behaving like “eco-terrorists waging jihad against prescribed burning”. As a result, he declared, fuel levels at the time of last week’s fire were the highest in Victoria for 30,000 years – a reference, apparently, to the ancient practice of Aboriginal people using firesticks to control their environment.

Premier John Brumby clearly recognises a mood for change, but managed this week to veer away from talking about controlled burning or whether people should be allowed to live in fire-prone bushland.

Instead, he reprised Stretton’s idea of permanent firebreaks, saying people may have to get accustomed to removing native vegetation whether they liked it or not.

He also focused on one of the more glaringly obvious problems, house design in dangerous areas. His message was that technology could overcome many of the problems through the use of higher fire standards built into houses.

The unanswered question is whether those driven out of the bush by last week’s fires will be able to rebuild before the royal commission has brought down its findings, which inevitably will deal with the way houses should be constructed. Most of the survivors who spoke to The Age this week expressed their desire to return and start building as soon as possible – and many had previously built wooden structures to blend in with their forested surroundings, believing their individual fire plans would be sufficient to deal with whatever the elements threw at them. It seems likely that the State Government will introduce new building standards before the commission has studied all the alternatives.

There is, too, much discussion about bunkers after one family survived in their purpose-built shelter. Brumby himself suggested bunkers may be an answer and pointed out that they were used widely in tornado-prone areas of America. A bushfire, others noted, was not like a tornado; you could incinerate running for the shelter, or have all the oxygen sucked out of it by the inferno.

The oldest of verities that one should decide, well in advance of any threat, whether to leave early or stay and fight – the so-called “stay or go” policy – smacked up against the reality that many who elected to stay had succumbed to the inferno. Precisely how this policy could be altered without forcing entire communities to evacuate down their narrow roads at the first scent of smoke remains unsolved.

Yet amid all the furious debate about what might be done to ameliorate the threat from Victoria’s capricious rhythm identified so exquisitely by Stretton, there emerged as if from the air itself that indestructible element that suffers no divide in the Australian heart.

Even as the first survivors staggered out of the bush, volunteers were tossing together relief centres in safe havens all across the state.

Members of the Country Women’s Association, of the Salvos and the Red Cross, doctors, nurses, emergency services personnel, police, church members and unbelievers and an army of ordinary folk with no thought but to help the suffering and support the firefighters stormed to footy ovals and recreation reserves, rolled up their sleeves and set to doing whatever might be required.

A blur of hands cut sandwiches and poured tea. Bandages and ointments were applied. Tents came from nowhere and everywhere. Shopkeepers emptied their shelves and sent vans scuttling with free goods of all types. Mattresses and bedding and clothing piled up, and householders opened their homes to strangers.

Noticeboards produced some order and much succour. Here was a board at Whittlesea, arrows pointing in every direction: “Need to talk?”; “Accommodation”; “Meals”; “Light refreshments”; “Clothing”; “Information”; “1st Aid”; “Red Cross”. All around, burly blokes trundled in with their barbecues and fired them up, and workmen banged together a demountable hut where insurance advice could be obtained.

Around the corner a serenity of saffron-robed Buddhist monks hoisted a small tent and stuck up a sign offering Buddhist relief. The venerable Tich Quang Ba, from Canberra, explained that he and his colleagues from temples around Melbourne had $10,000 to give away.

Up the mountain, Kinglake’s two Buddhist temples had survived while a Christian church was destroyed, only a brick wall inset with a giant glass cross left standing. The monks took nothing from this, accepting that a forest fire is as random as the unknowable universe.

Here was a young woman in a yellow T-shirt stencilled with the offer of “Free Hugs”. She was doing roaring business. This offerer of hugs, Sam Atkinson, is unemployed and had nothing else to offer. “People need compassion and I’m a compassionate person,” was her simple explanation.

Another young woman, Sam Starr, was busily costuming herself in clown get-up, preparing to entertain, as “Crazy Daisy”, bored and confused children. She had driven from Coburg.

“My sister’s from Kinglake,” she said. “She wasn’t home when the fire came and miraculously her house is still standing, but her father-in-law’s house is gone. I thought that’s it, my car’s full of petrol and I’m ready to go. I’ve got balloons and face-painting gear and I’ll go from spot to spot until sundown and find kids who need cheering up.”

Away up the road in Yea, the recreation reserve’s noticeboard sported hastily scrawled signs of generosity and desperation. “Please telephone your brother Oscar as soon as possible,” pleaded one; “100 acres of land vacant for stock/horses,” another offered. “Thank you for donating. However, due to overwhelming support we cannot accept any more clothing,” apologised yet another.

In the clubhouse, that blur of hands kept a steady stream of food coming, and out on the oval little kids played cricket and soccer. Some bounced in a blow-up jumping castle. It had been brought out from Melbourne by yet more clown-suited entertainers. They were from Planetshakers, a large, cheerful church group from Melbourne, and they were painting children’s faces, handing out lollipops and doing magic tricks.

“We authentically love kids, and when I see them hurting I want to help them,” said Rob Bradbury, his head bedecked with a giant plastic Elvis quiff. “My wife, Assunta, and I are grief counsellors and we know that children’s grief is different to that of adults. It is both shorter and longer – they can’t process it on the spot and they go back to playing their Nintendo, but it comes back in the night and stays with them for a long time.”

The church will give all its tithes and donations this Sunday to the bushfire appeal. It is likely to be about $90,000.
All across the nation, Australians answered Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for them to dig deep.

By yesterday, the bushfire appeal through the Red Cross had raised more than $84 million.

Sky News beamed live from Canberra on a giant screen the stream of condolence motions that replaced the normal jabber of question time, which was cancelled all week in the knowledge that political rhetoric would seem squalid at a time of such grief.

So sensitive to the hint of a crass political word were those gathered in the relief stations that an audible murmur of displeasure rippled through the crowds when it seemed Rudd had strayed into linking his $42billion stimulus package with the rebuilding of fire-ravaged communities.

Indeed, the mood across the increasingly crowded sanctuaries shifted as surely as the wind as more and more news media cameras, microphones and reporters hurried to capture the stories and the images of this near-unimaginable horror.

Many of us in the media have experienced this very phenomenon in other extreme circumstances, after the landslide in Thredbo and the goldmine collapse in Beaconsfield, for instance. Small communities become so overwhelmed by the attention that they shift rapidly from relief at being able to share their experiences with the world to a sullen shunning of reporters and occasional angry outbursts at them.

By the end of the week at many relief stations, there was a visible stand-off between those who had rushed from fires and those come to collect their stories.

Perhaps it will always be thus – cameras in particular are visible instruments of intrusion, however sensitive their operators and colleagues may wish to be to the suffering, and however important their reports may be to galvanising a nation to help.
Swiss doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described in her book On Death and Dying in 1969 a series of emotions that often are referred to as the “grief cycle”. There are, in this theory, five identifiable stages that those who are bereaved and traumatised are likely to have to wend their way through.

Stage one is denial (“this can’t be happening to me”), stage two is anger (“why me?”). Then comes bargaining (“If I do this, surely destiny might be different”), followed by depression (“I can’t bear this”) and, finally, acceptance (“I’m ready to resume life”).

You might add a couple more ingredients to this emotional stew: guilt and relief.

Having experienced both, 12years ago, when my own family home was consumed by fire when I was at work and my children were in the house – I found them alive and distressed on the street as windows blew out and firemen came racing to save what was left – I could not bear to approach shattered, often weeping survivors early this week.

By week’s end, few of the fire-struck appeared to have moved beyond Kubler-Ross’ stage two.

Here and there, though, were hardy souls who had sauntered straight to stage five: acceptance.

Kenn Airens, a snowy-haired and bearded man of 57 whose Glaswegian accent has hardly lost its burr in the 32years he has been in Australia, fled with his wife, Els, from remote Toolangi as flames reared over the ridge and consumed their home.
After a harrowing journey through the forests, the fire pursuing them, they and a couple of hundred other refugees found their way to Yea. A casual acquaintance from the town spotted them and insisted the couple come and live in his family’s home.

Airens thinks he may head towards Queensland and jokes that he would probably find himself flooded out up there, but in the meantime he is content to offer a hand or a yarn to anyone who might need it around Yea.

“Well, it’s just the nature of Australia,” he says of his ordeal, and launches into praise for the generosity of those around him.
There was a bloke, he says, who lost his only home, a camper on the back of a ute, who could hardly believe his fortune when he was given a tent. The fellow immediately sought out others who needed a place to sleep, declaring the tent was so large he had plenty of room for others.

“It’s all a bit of a bugger, but you move on,” Airens says with a shrug.

Quite.

Precisely where and how remains the question.

Homes of timber on the edge of steep, forested ridges with native bush all around no longer seem the most satisfactory answer, however glorious the views may be, and however
brave and resourceful their residents may be.

At a time when the state of Victoria is searching for new solutions to an old problem, we might pray that Bernard Teague, a former Supreme Court justice who will chair the royal commission into Victoria’s bushfires, proves as adept as old Judge Stretton in sorting the wood from the trees.


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