Victorian Bushfires Update 4

On Saturday Ruth and I got out to the site of my sister’s house in St Andrews. Getting out to the area is still tightly restricted. Residents of the area have all been issued with coloured bracelets (the sort they use in hospitals) – with different colours representing different areas. You also need to show a licence or other evidence of an address in the area. Since the Kinglake fire area is no longer a crime scene, the restrictions are mostly in place to prevent looting, but also to prevent the queue of “bushfire sightseers” trying to get into the area. There are stories of reporters from various publications (including well-respected ones) offering $500 per coloured bracelet. One person I spoke to said that he came across some people without bracelets, one of whom was taking photos and the other was making notes in a notepad. He asked if they were friends or relatives of the property owners and they replied, “No, we’re with the Sydney Morning Herald”…

A quick word on sightseers. I have worried about whether we are simply bushfire sightseers too – it is the last thing that I would want to do or be. I feel that whilst we didn’t live in the area, my sister certainly did and we have spent much time at their house, in the township of St Andrews and also in the greater Kinglake area. We have many wonderful memories of our times there, and for our ability to support my sister and family, we consider it important to be able to see first-hand what they have been through and what they have to deal with. In all of this we have made sure that we never get in the way of emergency and essential services personnel or their activites and that we treat the entire scene with the greatest respect, after all so many people have died there. We did not encounter any people that were simply trying to get into the area to have a look, although there are many reports out Whittlesea that these people are there.

Once we got through the two checkpoints, the extent of the devastation started to become apparent. All the hills and paddocks are charred. All along the Hurstbridge-Kinglake Road, trees have come down, or been chopped down and blackened logs are piled on the side of the road. Street signs are blackened and unreadable – although a crew has apparently been through and replaced some of the more critical ones. Every so often is a patch of unburned area – not large, just a few tens of square metres. Along the road every house on the left (west) side of the road was burnt out, except one – a brick house. The ground right up to the house is blackened, but the house itself had steel shutters – apparently those shutters saved the house. On the right hand (eastern) side of the road more houses survived – maybe every second house is gone. We saw along Mad Dog Creek Road a way, but could see no evidence of standing buildings, although people told us that further along the road many houses survived.

At one point a few hundred metres to the east of Mullers Road the Hurstbridge-Kinglake Road turns sharply through 90 degrees, over a small gully. Police tape is up between some trees there – a body had been found there. Apparently a local that rode out on their motorcycle and for some reason had dismounted and was taking photos of the fire (according to witnesses). Unfortunately he perished. Further along the road is the intersection with Olives Lane. This was the closest that my sister got to St Andrews before being forced to turn back because of fire across the road. It was quite sobering to see this point – all I could think of was how close my sister and her daughter came to dying on that road on Saturday. Only a degree of luck and the fact that she refused to give up allowed them to survive.

We saw police on the side roads riding trail bikes. Apparently the only way through on some of these roads at the moment. At various points along Hurstbridge-Kinglake road crews were working – generally collecting the cut-down trees and branches and feeding them into industrial-strength mulching machines. At many locations on the side of the road were trees still smoking. Fortunately even if they did flare up again, there is simply nothing left to burn. There is one paddock about 100m from the road that is unburned in the centre – this unburned area is full of mini-horses. Apparently they lived a few kilometres from there and miraculously survived. The person that owns this paddock has made what little is left available for these horses. Back in the township of St Andrews is a stock feed supplier – out the front are piles and piles of lucerne hay bales. One of the government agencies (I can’t remember which one) has paid a whole host of these feed suppliers to make their stock available to anyone in the fire-affected area free of charge. If you have stock of your own, or other people’s stock, or stock that has just roamed onto your land, you can just go and collect bales of hay to feed them.

Getting closer to my sister’s place we passed the ruins of one of the neighbour’s houses where my sister’s partner made the occupants leave their burning house and travel with him into St Andrews, after the fire front had passed. Apparently they were so shocked they didn’t know what to do and were just staying in the house as it burned down around them. A little further and the house with the wildlife shelter – completely destroyed – 800 sick and injured animals died there. Finally we turned the corner and saw my sister’s place. Had I not been following another vehicle, I would have missed it – all the familiar landmarks are gone. The 19th century church that they had trucked from northern Victoria that my sister used as her art studio was gone. The house was gone – except the chimney which was still standing. The sign that used to read “Kinglake National Park” – my previous mental prompt that this was their driveway – was blackened and twisted and unreadable.

One of the first things I noticed as we turned into the driveway was how damaged and rutted the driveway itself was. I’m not sure that a non-4WD would have been able to travel along their driveway at the moment. I don’t know what causes the rutting – I can only assume that the heat of the fire removes the moisture from the ground and turns parts of it into dust that just blow away. But I’m only guessing. As we drove down the drive we could see that all their sheds and outhouses were gone. Once we got to where the house used to stand, we saw their van that was parked out the front of the house – completely burned out. All the gear from their St Andrews market stand (they had the sausage stand at the market) was in that van and was now gone. Something that you don’t really think of is that so many people that live out in this area are self-employed and not only are their homes gone, but their livelihood is gone too. In my sister’s case, she has lost her studio and all art materials, but they’re replaceable. They’ve lost all the gear for their market stand, but alread friends have lent them enough to start again. Fortunately for them though, my sister’s partner still has a job that he can go to, so they still have income.

We parked in the cleared area on their driveway where their son had had the foresight to move their car to when the fire came. As a result, the car survived with scorch marks and a few melted bits. Once out of the car one of the first things we noticed was that their glasshouse was still standing! Apparently protected by the concrete watertank that they had on the side of their house. The glass that faced the fire front was broken, apparently shattered by debris thrown up by the incredible winds, but the rest of the glass was intact. It was obvious that it had become very hot in the glasshouse though, as most plants were dry and shrivelled. Tomatoes had cooked on the vine. Their son collected pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants (as some teenage boys do!) They were also dried out and dead, unfortunately.

Then we saw something incredible. In the shade cast by their concrete watertank was a big old-man Eastern Grey Kangaroo! This kangaroo has been living on or near their property for more than a decade, and somehow it had survived. It’s fur looked black, but I suspect from travelling through burned out paddocks rather than from direct exposure to the fire. Their fishpond had survived and the goldfish in the pond survived – once again, I can only assume it was protected by the concrete water tank. At least the kangaroo would have water to drink (plus their dam was also intact, so there was water there too). All paddocks and grassland were burned though, so there was no food for the kangaroo. My sister’s partner drove back to the feed supplier in St Andrews and collected a bale of lucerne. Once he had returned, we broke off a “biscuit” from that bale and tossed it to the ‘roo. Amazingly it got up and sauntered towards the hay and started to eat! They’ll go out to the property every day or so and make sure it has some food.

Looking through the ashes of the house, you can see where the various rooms were. The fridge is obviously where the kitchen was, and is buckled and blank. There are springs in the ashes where the sofa and the beds were. The metal storage cabinet where my sister stored her finished artworks is still there, but all the drawers contain is charred paper, instead of the final art. The house has collapsed around the ride-on lawnmower, which was stored underneath. The lawnmower is recognisable, except that the engine has gone – it was aluminium and is now a river of since-resolidified molten metal. The chimney still stands, and in the fireplace is the wood-burning stove that used to head the place. On a shelf above that, but currently well out of reach, are three ornaments – in exactly the location that they were originally placed. The corrugated iron roof is now twisted amongst the other unidentifiable metal items.

This wasn’t the first time my sister and her partner had returned to the site. They has been allowed back two days previously. At that time they salvaged the Victorian-era cast-iron bathtubs and toilet cistern from the ashes. However, they noticed something at that time – they weren’t the first people on the site. There were footprints in the ash, and items had been removed from the rubble – some items had been lined up on the bluestone wall they had. Also, my nephew has an old car that he used to drive around their back paddock. Surprisingly the car survived the fire, with scorch-marks only. However, someone had been there before, because they had smashed the windscreen and also the front passenger window. The windscreen appeared to be an act of vandalism only, but the passenger window was smashed so the car could be opened. My sister is going to bring out a sign that reads, “We have already lost almost everything, please don’t loot what little we have left.” Almost everyone has a story of looting in the area. No one has any idea whether it is kids getting in, or people seriously looking through the rubble for valuables.

In the remains of the sheds was the remains of the motorcycle collection. A 1960s era BSA, and a number of Japanese bikes. Surprisingly the BSA “survived” – tyres were lost, but the steel frame and cast-iron engine block were intact. All the Japanese bikes, including my nephew’s trail bike, were lost. The steel frames had warped, and the all aluminium engines had melted.

From the house you can now see the Hurstbridge-Kinglake Road because all the foliage between the house and road has burned. A constant stream of vehicles – mostly work crews, were travelling along the road. Also from the house you can see a couple of kilometres of Ninks Road – I had no idea that it was so close, before this. Ninks Road is where 22 of 26 houses were lost. On the hills that you can now see clearly are the other roads I’ve mentioned previously. Places like Bald Spur Road where many people died. These roads are like scars across the black hills. The place is just barren.

We walked the perimeter of the property. Most fences have gone – the fence posts burned, and the fencing wire on the ground. The powerlines to the property are down, although at least one of the wooden power poles is still standing. The sleepers around the garden and vegetable beds have burned, and all the plants are gone. Amazingly though, while we were there my sister pulled out several asparagus shoots that looked absolutely perfect! Walking around I noticed how incredibly dusty it was. In places the dust was inches thick on the ground. Presumably a combination of dust and ash. There seemed to be no moisture in the ground whatsoever. I dread to think what is going to happen when rain comes – the mud will be unbelievable, think.

We walked down to the dam where my sister’s partner and their son jumped in to escape the flames. The ash that had previously been on the surface of the water was gone and the water looked remarkably clear. On the first day they returned they found six large carp floating in the dam. They previously hadn’t even know that they had carp in their dam! All the foliage around the dam is gone, it must have been so hot as the trees and bushes burned there – I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in the dam with towels over heads as the bushes and trees burned. Once again, I think they are incredibly lucky to have survived.

One thing I hadn’t expected was the smell. Not just the smell of smoke and the smell of burned wood, but the smell of rotting carcasses. On some properties that had stock that perished, large pits had been dug and the dead stock pushed in and then covered with lime. In paddocks on other properties dead stock remain in the open. Depending on which way the wind blows, the stench can be quite overpowering. Walking around we could see the remains of native animals that hadn’t survived. Ruth found the body of a Tawny Frogmouth near the dam. My sister found a dead rosella (she didn’t say if it was Eastern or Crimson). I found a dead Yellow-tufted Honeyeater on the driveway in front of the house (presumably not a Helmeted Honeyeater!)

As we walked towards the dam, a family of Wood Ducks walked away from us. Amazing how soon these birds had returned. We heard a magpie calling in the distance. Overhead some Galahs were flying. We saw Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. On the Thursday, when they first came back to the site, my sister and her partner saw some Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. We saw a White-faced Heron flying across the paddocks and into the dam. Other birds seen in the burned area (but not on my sister’s property) were Little Ravens and Yellow-rumped Thornbills. One thing that I noticed, and was certainly commented on by others, was the extraordinarily large number and variety of birds in Hurstbridge and other areas immediately outside the fire area. Presumably these are birds that escaped the bushfire and have taken up residence just outside the area. I looked but did not see any White-throated Needletails. I actually don’t recall seeing any insects, let alone flying ones, that these birds could feed on.

Eventually my sister couldn’t stay at the property any longer, so we left. Once we reached St Andrews, we called into the community centre that had been set up in the old school hall. This was quite amazing. As we walked in, there was a kitchen where food was prepared around the clock. A corridor was lined shelves containing food and groceries of all sorts – canned food, fresh vegetables, bread, milk and other necessities. As we walked in, one of the community workers said, “Just grab a bag and take whatever you need.” It is amazing how the community comes together to support its own. There was another room at the hall with desks set up – CentreLink, a nurse, legal aid, Telstra, trauma counsellor and so forth. On the wall was a message board – people looking for people, people advising they’re OK. Another list on the wall was from people offering goods or services. Another list was local accommodation – people offering everything from single rooms to entire houses for people displaced by the fires. Ruth and I spoke with one of the counsellors who offered us advice on supporting my sister and her family – she also asked how the kids were and gave us pamphlets on how to deal with people facing trauma. She also tried to make sure that Ruth and I were OK, because she said that it was likely that we’d feel some stress-related effects too. My sister and her partner collected new work boots, to replace the ones lost in the fire – all donated by Yakka. This room was full of donated clothes – all sorted, neatly folded and stacked.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the fire area over the weeks and months to come. I expect that over the next few weeks the trees will lose their burnt leaves and the epicordal growth will start. I am not sure how long it will take for new grass to appear. Possibly once some rain has fallen. Nature will of course start to repair itself. I think the human tragedy will take much longer to repair.

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