'Handwritten notes plead for people to contact families'

Eyewitness: "They won't let us into Kinglake because of the horror we would see: 35 people havebeen burnt to death there"

Simone Giuliani
Tuesday 10 February 2009 01:00
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Two days ago, this small, rural town was gearing up for an invasion of trucks, cowboy boots and hats because the annual country music festival was due in town. Today, grief and sadness fill the air of my hometown after an inferno swept through nearby towns, killing at least 171 people in Australia's most deadly bushfires.

Just up a winding, tree-lined road lies Kinglake. They won't let us into Kinglake because of the horror we would see: 35 people, that we know of, have been burnt to death there. Many are friends or family of those in the town. This is a close-knit community.

Their charred remains are being picked from the twisted and burnt ruins for the gruesome process of identification, a process being repeated in other devastated towns. Many of Whittlesea's loved ones are still missing.

A message board, containing Post-it notes with handwritten pleas for missing people to contact family and friends, has been erected in the community activity centre, which usually acts as a child-care centre for my child and his friends.

On the streets, teary-eyed people wander in disbelief at the savagery of nature, still trying desperately to find out if family members, friends and neighbours survived. Occasionally, you see a happy ending, with embraces and tears of happiness as a missed friend, family or neighbour is spotted.

The Whittlesea showground was to be home to hundreds of campers listening to their favourite country singers. Now it's the staging ground for firefighters; the wail of fire sirens filling the air, instead of the twang of country music.

The weary firefighters who have faced off against walls of flames to try to protect friends and strangers are our heroes. Many sleep in their smoke- and soot-stained yellow overalls, on the ground before heading back to the deadly firefront. In the distance, you can still see flames flare in the charred hills, which last Saturday glowed bright red as we feared the fiery beast would turn on us with its death and destruction.

Those who survived in Kinglake are being brought dazed and shocked into town in buses and car convoys. Many don't know whether or not they have a home to go back to. "I don't mind losing my house because I've got my kids," said Rachel Johnson, from Kinglake West, where 20 have died. "I am just worried about all the friends we can't contact."

People settle in Whittlesea and Kinglake and the other small towns dotted in the bushland because of its natural beauty. But they know of the bushfire threat that lies in the thick trees. Many of us have fought fires before and are prepared, but this bushfire was like nothing in our experience. It started as a small blaze on Saturday a long way off, but soaring temperatures and vicious winds fanned its flames at a frightening pace.

A quick wind change swept it towards the towns of Humevale, Kinglake West, Kinglake, Flowerdale and Strathewen. By evening, Kinglake was caught unaware and surrounded by flames. "There was no warning," said Christine Ogilvie, who lost her house at Upper Plenty. "There were no fire trucks and no police telling us to evacuate. All of a sudden the whole place was surrounded in flames and we knew we had to get out, because if we couldn't get through the driveway, we were trapped."

In Victoria, people keep tanks of water and sprinklers at their houses, which become safe refuges if the firefront can't be stopped. "In my naivety, I thought we would be OK," said Michele McKenna, who lived in Kinglake West with her husband and two small children. "We had a fire plan. We live in a mud-brick [house] and we cleared the area around us. It was just an evil act of nature."

Michele lost her house, once one of my favourite spots to sit and watch our daughters play in the backyard with the chickens as we sat looking at the faraway city, framed by a thick wall of gum trees. All she has left now is ash, half-standing walls and her jewellery, now a clump of metal.

Survivors' stories

"There were about eight of us who decided to stay ... We had three fires bearing down on us at one time.From the east, the south and the west. They converged on us all at the same time. The fire went through here like a bomb." - Peter Byrne, Flowerdale

"We went outside and there were embers and a lot of smoke, but you couldn't see the fire out the back. We didn't worry too much, but then we saw a fireball come from across the road. All I had time to do was grab my handbag. Now that's all I have." - Rhonda Swift, West Bendigo

"There was a wall of flames and everything went black. There was no warning. I've never seen anything like it in my life. You see this on TV, it doesn't happen to you. Some people weren't so lucky as us ... Friends' kids have died. It's really terrible." - Joanne Fisher, Kinglake

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