Australia — The street they are calling the Road of Death was destroyed by its beauty. It was the bush that drew to it pensioners and families from the suburbs, and it was the bush that turned on them, driving them out, destroying their houses and taking their lives.
The animals lie blackened too, wildlife seared by the flames alongside chickens in their coops and canaries kept as pets. This was country, one local said, where lyrebirds and wombats frolicked in your garden.
More than 200 people died in the fires that swept across the hills north-east of Melbourne on February 7, half or more in the towns of Kinglake and Marysville.
They were consumed inside a billowing fog of smoke, unable to see where they were sheltering or running or driving as they crashed into each other or became lost in their own streets. Emergency headquarters staff described how their officers and spotter planes lost sight of the unfolding disaster as the woods erupted like a volcano, hiding everything beneath clouds that rose higher and wider than a thunderstorm.
But now that the flames have gone, the scorched metal of abandoned cars and the fallen brickwork tell all too clearly the story of how Black Saturday unfolded, and nowhere more so than in Pine Ridge Road.
Nestled in Victoria’s Great Dividing Range, the road forms a spur skirting the edge of Kinglake’s wooded National Park. As residents took refuge from the hottest day in Melbourne’s history, the fire swept through and took every house.
Unofficially, police say that more than 20 people perished here, one of the worst single tolls. Nine died as they took shelter together, resisting neighbours’ advice to leave.
“The house has got sprinklers on the roof and we’ll be fine, and I’ll call you soon,” are the last recorded words of Tina Wilson, from No 7, speaking by phone to her partner, still at work in Melbourne. Her three children died with her.
She had no idea what was coming. Survivors and fire crews agree that the speed was unprecedented, and faced families with instantaneous, life-or-death decisions, strings of choices with unseen outcomes – stay or go, drive or run, left or right.
Standard advice for bush fires is to leave early or stand and fight. Do not get trapped in your car. But the fire turned and ran on Kinglake at 80 miles an hour, crossing 20 miles along the side of the valley in little over 15 minutes. There was no “early”.
All morning, the residents of Pine Ridge Road had seen the smoke, and some checked the website of the Country Fire Authority, the largely volunteer fire brigade.
It was particularly worried about a blaze that had started near the town of Kilmore and hit a pine plantation. But to the residents of Kinglake, Kilmore was far away.
By early afternoon the fire had spread to Wandong, but there it seemed to stick. In their gardens and pools, the people of Kinglake went about their lives.
It was not until well after three o’clock that everything changed. As their intensity grew, the flames started spitting and surging and racing away, and in Pine Ridge Road the phones started ringing.
Rob Richings, a maintenance fitter who lived at No 9, took a call at work from his wife Jen. He had calmed her down after a previous conversation, saying the fire was nowhere near, but this time she was frightened.
She told him the smoke was getting nearer, and he went home, putting her in his four-wheel drive. His friend at No 19, Phil Shea, decided his wife, Vanessa, and daughters Rachel, 12, and Chantelle, 10, should go too, and they set off together.
Mr Richings’s uncle’s farm was round the mountain and looked over open arable land, where flames cannot cross. The journey there was safe, but the smoke starting to envelop the hill made their predicament clear.
The two men decided to return and fight, meeting up with their other pal, Craig Draper from No 15.
It quickly became clear that the evacuation, which had seemed cautious, had really been a last-gasp chance.
Sam Gents was at the coffee shop he had opened in Carlton, in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. The burning scrub was less than three quarter of an hour’s drive away, yet the bush seems remote from the city’s neat Victorian streets, bookshops and Italian restaurants.
When she called him, Tina Wilson was already trapped.
She too had decided to get the children out, and bundled Crystal, 15, Nathan 13, and Teagan, six, into her car, along with a friend who was visiting.
She turned down National Park Road, but when she reached the bottom there was a roadblock. The firefront had arrived and was shooting inexorably up the hill.
Turning tail, she tried to go round the other way, but hit another roadblock where once again police told her to turn back and take shelter.
At No 14, the Roland family were weighing their options. Paul, a fitter, and Karen Roland, a childminder, were a local couple: Karen’s parents live near Kinglake fire station.
Their daughters Caitlin, 14, and Nicola, 12, were growing up fast, friends said. Nicola was the “girlie one”, into jewellery and clothes and art, while Caitlin was quieter and sportier.
The children were in the same dilemma as their friends across the street. Like Tina Wilson, the family headed in both directions up and down the main road looking for a way out. There was none, and they too found themselves back at home, calling their families.
The fire volunteers shake their heads as they describe what they were watching as crisis enveloped the Rolands and the Wilsons, the Sheas and the Richings. From Wandong, the fire had simply taken off.
One fire service leader said he was racing towards Kinglake when the flames overtook him. They then curled round the bottom of the hill and as the wind changed leaped up either side, catching the villages between in a cruel pincer.
In Kinglake fire station, Captain Paul Hendrie too had an extraordinary decision to make. Mr Hendrie, normally a fuel tanker driver, explained to The Telegraph how it was he was left with no engines as the fire hit his town.
He has only two, and he had already sent one down the mountain to deal with the embers hurled from the treeline, when a call for help came in from St Andrews, 10 miles away. By now it was getting on for 4pm.
Mr Hendrie knew that if he answered, he and his whole community would be left with nothing except his station’s water tanks. But the rules are clear. “The decision you take is to fight the fire you have got and not the one that isn’t there,” he said.
The last engine disappeared down the hill.
Within half an hour, there were 400 people sheltering inside his station.
Back in Pine Ridge Road, Mr Richings made a last check of his home, a brick bungalow with views over the valley. His sprinklers, he reckoned, were not enough.
Flames were scouring the brush and leaping across the treetops with a savagery no-one had ever seen before. It took two minutes for them to turn from a distant menace captured on his mobile phone camera to being on his roof.
He decided to leave. With panic rising, the Rolands and Tina Wilson decided otherwise.
As burning branches landed on their houses and took hold, they thought No 9 was a better bet and made for his door. “I was screaming to them to get out, get out,” he said. “But they said it was safer in the house. I knew it wasn’t.”
Tina Wilson had made her final call to Mr Gents. “She rang me up and said, ‘look, I’m going to go next door,” he said. “That was the last I heard of her.”
Phil Shea and Craig Draper were making their own decisions. Mr Draper rushed from Mr Shea’s living room with sets of keys, hoping to find one of their cars would still start.
Mr Shea just had time to reflect on the flames pouring up from the paddock behind his garden – long wild grass that, he said, he had wanted cut as a fire hazard.
It was bush like this that had compelled Mr Shea to move from Melbourne nine years ago. Now, like Australia itself, he was reassessing his deepest feelings about the countryside he loved.
Kinglake had been a magnet to generations of settlers as it changed from Victorian gold rush town to logging centre to a fruit-growing rural idyll. Suddenly suburbia looked safer.
From outside came the sound of a car horn, and he ran through the gathering flames to Mr Draper’s car. The two looked for Mr Richings – they had said they would go together but the smoke meant they could hardly see the bonnet.
They shot down the road, and drove through the firelines, smelling the wheels burning.
All over the mountain, cars were joining a blind, chaotic exodus.
Through a brief gap in the smoke, a police helicopter saw a convoy of four-wheel drives pulling horse-boxes, hands stretched out holding the horses’ reins to reassure them. It dropped an officer to the ground who guided them to a clear road.
But pile-ups multiplied and, as embers hit fuel tanks, blew up killing all inside.
The Sheas were still at the farm but the trees that marked its boundaries were going up one after the other.
The Richings’ collection of historic cars began to explode, leaving a line of vintage wrecks. It was excruciatingly close, but the initial calculation proved correct: the fire moved down the tree line away from the fields, and the house just survived.
Rachel, the 12-year-old Shea girl, buried her face in her father’s chest. “A daddy’s girl,” he called her.
Mr Richings had left Pine Ridge Road five minutes before them, giving up on the frightened refugees in his home. He must have been the last to be turned back from the road block down the mountain, but somehow managed to drive through the fire now coming down the hill as well.
He found the fire station and the National Park pub engulfed, but the fireball moved past leaving those inside unharmed. The petrol station exploded dramatically, but killed nobody. And he noticed that as the fire licked across the playing field, it fizzled out quickly on the short grass.
He drove round to where it had already burned out, and parked in the middle.
He and his wife were now safe, and the Sheas and Drapers too. There are no witnesses remaining, though, to the final moments of Pine Ridge Road, and no-one can say how the four adults and five children in No 9 spent their last moments as they huddled together.
The Rolands, we know, had said a last good-bye. Mrs Roland spoke to her sister, Rebecca Tresize. The phone was passed to the children but then Mrs Roland snatched it back.
“It’s too late,” she shouted down the phone. “We’re trapped,” and those are the last known words from the residents of the street.
It was over around 4.30. It had taken just half an hour.
This week, police came and went, trying to count the dead. Forensics officers will now apply science to the task.
But where survival routes were once invisible as the day turned dark, now light shines clearer through trees reduced to soot pencils. In the concrete shadows of homes, the geography of escape and death is stark.
As he poked through the dim outlines of his bedrooms, Mr Richings could not bring himself to think of what happened there, but he could speculate on what goes through people’s minds as they confront the choices that will determine whether they live or die.
He had chosen his car – the one thing everyone is told to avoid.
“The windows of my house were exploding,” he said. “You know when the windows are exploding the flames are going inside.
“They were there inside, and I’m sure the adrenalin was pumping, and when the adrenalin gets going, you don’t know what you are doing.
“I thought if you are moving you have a chance. It’s against the rules, but this wasn’t a normal bush fire. I made it.”