Victorian Bushfires Update 2

Today I visited more of the bushfire affected area. With my sister and her partner we tried to go back to the site of their burned-out house. We first drove to St Andrews and I can verify that the pub is still there. There is a police check-point on Main Road, St Andrews – at the site of the market. Only locals are permitted past the checkpoint – the police require a drivers licence with a valid address in St Andrews before allowing people past. There is a second checkpoint at the Mittons Bridge road – no one is permitted beyond that except for emergency services vehicles. Unfortunately my sister’s house is several kilometres to the north of that intersection, so we could not get in any further. There are several reasons for the roadblock – firstly because the police have declared the ENTIRE fire-affected area to be a crime zone (more on this later); secondly, the roads have not been adequately cleared; thirdly, the fires are actually still going (more on this later too).

The first thing that is noticeable on approaching the Mittons Bridge roadblock is that this is the closest point that the fire came to St Andrews – about 1.5km from the pub. The hills and paddocks beyond Mittons Bridge Road are completely blackened. Since we couldn’t get through the roadblock we drove along Mittons Bridge Road – which ultimately winds its way back to Hurstbridge. From Mittons Bridge Road, you get a good view of the land to the north of St Andrews – which is the fire-affected area. A quick look shows the path of the fire – it clearly followed the ridge line which extends from Kilmore and Heathcote north west of here, all the way to Yarra Glen south east of this location. Directly in the path of the fire were the townships of Kinglake West, Pheasant Creek, Kinglake Central, Kinglake, Strathewen and St Andrews. From Mittons Bridge Road, looking north it is possible to see the power-line easement, and you can also see Bald Spur Road, Jackson Road, School Ridge Road, Bowden Spur Road, Eagles Nest Road and the hamlet of Strathewen – all of which will long be remembered in this area as sites of complete (and I mean 100%) destruction.

The hills are blackened – and I now understand what people mean by “matchsticks”. At this distance, the trees look like little matchsticks stuck into the ground. There is no foliage or green left at all. The area reeks of smoke. At various spots along the way we stopped and spoke with residents. Immediately to the north of Mittons Bridge Road every second house is still standing (as this was the southern extent of the fire). The houses that burned look like they have simply melted. Grass in the paddocks is burned, but you can clearly see where the wind changed and the fire reversed on itself. There is still stock in the paddocks, grazing on the small remnant patches of unburned grass. There is also dead stock in the burned areas. Trees along the roadside are still smoking. All along the hills in the distance you can see smoke and what looks like the occasional flame – probably flare-up from smouldering trees. I guess no one is particularly worried about this because even if the tree burst into flames again, there is nothing left around to burn.

Every person I spoke to said the same thing. They had absolutely no warning of impending disaster. The fire moved so quickly that they had no chance to save anything – it was pure luck that some houses survived and some burned (this on the southern extremity of the fire). People that had escaped from Strathewen said that NOTHING was left. I notice that this has been picked up on by the online news today – The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/) has an article on this hamlet – showing nothing left. From Mittons Bridge Road, it is not possible to see detail, but the location of that hamlet is right in the middle of the blackened area. The description of the fire that almost everyone used was “firestorm”. People (including my sister’s partner) described huge fireballs preceding the fire front. They also described the white-hot sparks that resulted from these fireballs that flew hundreds of metres in front of the fire front igniting the ground. Everyone mentioned the incredible noise that accompanies the passing of the fire. People that had witnessed it also described the incredible heat from the fire front.

I spoke to people that survived in Ninks Road. One couple in a house that survived described seeing their neighbour’s house literally explode. They were sure their neighbours were dead. The house on the other side also burned to the ground. Once the fire had passed they came out to check the damage and to see what happened their neighbours. After seeing the ruins of their neighbour’s house they burst into tears… But then something amazing happened. Two figures rose from the creek – covered in mud – it was their neighbours. But then another two figures rose from the creek a little further along – their neighbours from the other side, carrying their one-year-old child. Everyone has stories of the day the fires came.

I also visited Whittlesea today (helping Ruth deliver a replacement 4WD to the Parks Victoria office). Whittlesea is the current control centre for these fires. It is quite amazing that normal life goes on all around – the freeway had peak hour traffic, people are going to work. It is only once you get to this location that you can see that all is not quite right. From Whittlesea you can see the smoke pouring from the hills. There are clearly hot-spots because the smoke is thicker. It is really important to note that the Kinglake fires are NOT extingushed yet – this is still very much an active bushfire. CFA crews were heading out to the fire front, police were blocking roads and controlling traffic, Parks Victoria staff were heading out to map the fire front. In the front yard of the head ranger’s house is a Toyota Landcruiser that has been exposed to radiant heat – the rear bumper, tail lights, and all plastic has melted – the oven-baked paint has blistered – inside the vehicle everything is intact. The crew survived – but it goes to show how hot the fire must get for vehicles to spontaneously burst into flames.

I was terribly saddened by the loss of Dr Richard Zann and his wife and daughter – whilst I didn’t know him personally, I knew of his work and his incredibly valuable contribution to birds and bird conservation. He lived in Bald Spur Road which was one of the hardest hit areas in this region. Also killed in that road was the Australian actor Reg Evans (of Mad Max fame, amongst other appearances) and his partner. Reg was a well-known face at the St Andrews market, and was renowned for his passion for local theatre. Apparently Reg died trying to flee the fire. From what I understand so many people died in that road attempting to do the same.

I believe that Yellingbo is undamaged. Apparently it is covered in ash, but otherwise unharmed. Tonimbuk (another location for the endangered Helmeted Honeyeater) is under threat however – the Bunyip bushfire, which is currently 25,000ha in size is burning 5km to the north, in basically inaccessible forest. Fortunately the threat is not considered great at the moment. Bunyip State Park is currently closed to the public.

I mentioned earlier that the police have declared the entire fire-affected area to be a crime zone. Unfortunately this means that NO ONE is allowed into the area – and once someone has left, they cannot return (which is causing all sorts of problems, apparently). Practically what this means is that no wildlife carers can enter the area to look for injured wildlife. No vets can enter the area to destroy badly injured stock or wildlife. It is unclear when the area will be opened, but probably not for another day or two, which will mean that it is too late for much wildlife.

Fires are currently threatening Yackandandah and Beechworth, but there is no immediate threat to the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park (and that park remains open). There is a fire burning at Wilsons Promontory 2km to the north of Sealers Cove. The Wilsons Promontory National Park is closed to the public. All other fire-affected National and State Parks are closed to the public.

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