We packed the catering truck with five hundred meals from two city hotels, and headed north out the Hume Highway into the country. It was almost nine o’clock. Darkness fell as we left the city lights and drove into the unknown.
For a day and a half we had watched as fires tore through Victoria. Nine major fires were exacerbated by over four hundred smaller ones. Thousands of hectares were being decimated in what was turning out to our worst nightmare.
As we turned off the Hume about thirty kilometres out of the city, the darkness could not hide how normal everything looked. We were about forty kilometres from one of the centres of the fire, yet everything looked so ordinary. The lights from the golf club twinkled on a hill. Houses with parked cars outside looked safe enough.
Arriving into Whittlesea, it seemed a normal country town on a Sunday evening: little traffic, few pedestrians, sleepy and quiet. As we approached the far outskirts of the town we saw our first indication of abnormality. Flashing lights ahead heralded what we thought would be the end of our journey. Whittlesea Showground had been turned into the Country Fire Authority’s staging point, the central location from where they despatched fire crews into the bushfires beyond. Not being a shift change-over time, it was pretty quiet. Mountains of bottled water sat beside the check-in point. St. John Ambulance crews hung around their vehicle, with nobody to treat. CFA men and women wandered about doing various tasks – moving vehicles, passing messages onto to police, talking with colleagues. The huge Channel Seven satellite dish, a handful of wandering cameramen and some powerful TV lights in the middle of the oval hinted that this was something slightly out of the ordinary.
I stood chatting to the staging area coordinator and another lady for a couple of minutes. He said they were bearing up so far. Another bloke wandered by and quietly asked my companions if they had heard the news about a mutual acquaintance. They nodded sombrely. Bad news. Perhaps a neighbour or colleague who’d been confirmed as dead.
Matt, a young CFA bloke, came to talk to us, and we started unlocking the food compartments, ready to offload our meals. No, he said, we will just wait for your police escort and you can follow us the rest of the way. It appeared we had to keep going past the staging area to a couple of fire stations to deliver the meals directly to the fire crews. This was going to take longer than we thought.
Sam our police officer arrived, and we headed off. It can’t be that dangerous, we thought: the police vehicle was a regular Holden. A mile or so away we hit a road block, the first of many we were about to navigate. A small huddle of what looked like local teenagers hung around nearby. Two State Emergency Service vehicles and a handful of SES volunteers manned the checkpoint. They waved us through. We peered through the darkness: everything still looked perfectly normal. A few properties lined the road but we could see no lights. The road was clear. We couldn’t be that close to the fireground, could we?
A second roadblock, this time more heavily manned with SES and police, seemed to be the inner cordon. We chugged along in our sturdy Red Cross truck, following the police car and the CFA truck. A handful of cars fell in line with us – perhaps local people waiting for the police escort to get to close-by properties, I don’t know. They overtook us and drove away so maybe not. Minutes later a stream of flashing lights approached – a convoy of fire trucks and support vehicles heading back to the staging area. But all around us the land still looked perfectly normal.
Then: we both saw it at the same time. All around us in the dark were burning embers. Flames licked around the bases of trees right on the side of the road. Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a gum tree on our right hand side spewed glowing red embers like a catherine wheel right across the road in front of us. The red glow all around us got more prominent. Everything was still on fire. Above us, large boughs glowed red and threatened to break and fall.
The road had obviously been mechanically cleared by something – the debris on the roadside indicated that there had been lots of trees and branches on the road recently. We seemed to be up on a ridge with the city way down on our right and a sort of valley to the left. All we could see was blackness dotted with red; lone trees burned here and there, some with angry flame, some just smouldered.
The first burned-out car was quite confronting. On a long stretch of road with nothing much about, a car was burned to a shell. We wondered what would lead you to abandon your car like that in the middle of a bushfire, until we realised that they maybe hadn’t actually made it out of the car. Then another car wreck, then another. The flames and embers all around us got more and more prevalent. On small patches of grass you could see dull red embers eating away in a crooked line.
The smell of burning wood filled the air. To me, that is a comforting smell, reminding me of campfires in Powerscourt and Lough Dan with the scouts, or the big old inglenook fireplace in Giltspur Cottage where we spent many winter weekends. It was incongruous to associate that pleasant smell with the carnage around us.
The scene got more confronting. We could see destroyed houses, sheds, garages. One structure burned slowly and evenly: it looked like it was designed to burn that way. All that was left was about an even metre high of smouldering mass. A bramble patch burned angrily like a bonfire, high into the sky. How was that not making everything else burst into flame again? We had heard the talk about burning embers travelling up to ten kilometres ahead of the fire front. As we watched embers flying all around us it because easier to understand how that could happen.
In the distance we could see the distinct shape of a house still burning. Less than a hundred metres away another clear shape: another home, lights on, car parked outside, all perfectly normal. It was so clinical how the fire could raze one home to the ground and pass by the one next door without leaving a mark.
A dead horse lay on its side. How fast was the fire spreading that a horse could not outrun it? Later, our police escort Sam told us he had been evacuating people the day before, screeching down country roads doing 120 kilometres per hour, and the fire front overtook him at speed, going in the same direction.
Finally we arrived at the first stop .West Kinglake fire station is a small station, now chock-a-block with extra fire tenders and temporary residents. As we waited for them to make a parking space for us we watched fire crews shaking out their mattresses for the evening. I spoke to two firefighters standing outside having a smoke. They said they were coping ok so far, but they were happy for the food. I asked a young firefighter about the abandoned cars, and whether the people in them would have escaped. He said it was easy to tell: those with remains still in them had police tape around them.
As we packed up the truck to head off again, one of the older blokes advised me to keep a careful watch on the road. I thought he was talking about the fallen trees and power lines we had already encountered, but no. He was warning us of people, dazed and confused people who are just wandering about in the dark, not sure where they are, traumatised by the fires. He said there had been quite a few near misses that day with the fire trucks barely missing them.
Onwards we went. More fire. More trees sparkling with flying embers. More abandoned burned-out cars. Some were run into ditches or up embankments. Ahead a huge gum tree had fallen right across the road. The SES or somebody had been up and chopped away half of the tree to allow for through traffic. A car had collided head-on with the other half of the tree, and lay on the road crumpled to half its length and totally burned to a shell. I couldn’t see any police tape, but neither could I envisage how the occupants could have survived.
Another car. Police tape on that one. Then the charred remains of a high-speed head-on collision between a saloon car and a small truck carrying gas cylinders. What would have been the flat bed of the truck looked like a pile of paper on the ground. Surely nobody could have survived that.
Then the worst scene of the night: as we approached the destroyed town of Kinglake a six-car pile-up on one side of the road, and a moped on its side on the other, apparently having hit a tree. All seven vehicles had police tape on. It must have been impossible to see with the smoke, and in their panic the drivers perished trying to escape. We drove past in silence, knowing a lot of people had lost their lives in that spot only a day before.
I’d been told a number of times in the previous twenty-four hours that “Kinglake is gone” and “Marysville is gone”. It is hard to imagine a regular small country Victoria town simply not existing anymore – no houses, no schools, nothing. Well, here we were in Kinglake and I didn’t have to imagine anymore. Having driven slowly through the burning remains of the outskirts of the town, we witnessed more carnage. A ghost town loomed, eerie silence enveloping everything. More shells of houses and other buildings – the schools are all gone, the community hall disappeared. A single brick chimney was all that remained of one place. A small car park full of burned-out cars. More flickering flames burning even now – gate posts, telegraph poles, trees, grass.
The Kinglake fire station was right beside the old motel at the crossroads in the centre of the small town. Amazingly, both were pretty much untouched. The space in between was filled with fire trucks with the names of the brigades on their sides: Mount Eliza, Macedon, Werribee. Some of these guys were a long way from home. Right in the middle was a big Red Cross first aid van. Our people had been despatched up here for a few days. They didn’t know where they were sleeping or when their shift was going to end, but they were more concerned about the wellbeing of the firefighters they were treating. The injuries weren’t bad, they said. It was people’s mental state they were monitoring more than anything.
A harassed-looking CFA woman approached us. She told us this was the only food they’d seen all day. The trestle tables were already set up to serve out the food. We had no plates or cutlery for them, so they spoke to the owner of the closed-up motel next door, a firefighter himself. He went to find what he could.
The CFA station’s “Fire Danger Today” sign had the arrow pushed right around to “extreme”. We watched this gang of firefighters line up for their food. Everybody we had seen and met today, apart from the Police, were volunteers. The firefighters, the SES, the Red Cross, even some of the ambulance people. No pay for what they were doing, but they were well-trained, the front line of defence against fire. And they had turned up in their thousands all over Victoria.
We turned for home and made our way back out of the fire ground with our police escort leading the way, retracing our steps back past the destroyed houses, burned-out cars and destruction that had claimed so many lives. It would have been a different experience had we done this delivery in daylight. There would have been more people about – SES crews clearing roads, firefighters doing what they could, police starting the grisly process of victim identification. But in the quiet of the night with nobody around, the enormity of what we saw seemed even more devastating. How this community, and others like it, are going to even start trying to rebuild their lives is unimaginable.
We got home past two in the morning, exhausted. The alarm woke us before seven, with a man from Kinglake recounting his story on the radio. I knew it was Kinglake even though he didn’t mention it till the end, because he was describing exactly what we’d seen the night before, almost blow by blow. The last thing he said was that country Victoria folk were strong; he didn’t know what he was going to do now to rebuild his life but he knew he would. They are going to need all the help we can give.