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Kinglake: A devastated town

By Cameron Bennett, SUNDAY presenter

Published: 11:12AM Sunday February 15, 2009 Source: ONE News

We'd seen the pictures from the Victorian bush fires for several days straight and read the harrowing accounts, but it's not until you actually get there and smell the scorched earth and see it for yourself that the devastation sinks in.

So it was for myself and SUNDAY colleagues Steve Butler and Ken Dorman. We knew this was the biggest story to hit our region in recent times and we knew we had to acknowledge it for our opening programme of the year. We set off for the virtually obliterated town of Kinglake, about 40kms North East of Melbourne.

Kinglake was one of the worst hit in the firestorms. An estimated 35 people dead but that toll could rise as teams scour the burnt-out ruins.

Kinglake is - or was - a picturesque Hamlet set amongst established bush. It was the choice of lifestyle block owners and alternative lifestylers. The closest parallel community I can think of here is Titirangi. You get the picture - whole earth, whole food, a little bit town a little bit country.

Locals talk about 'going up the mountain' when they head from town to Kinglake. It nestles about 2500 feet up, population around 3000.

Our story was based around the personal account of Heather Perring, a 29-year-old mother of two, formerly from Nelson. We found her, still in shock, sharing a house at the base of the mountain with around a dozen other survivors. All of them wearing donated clothing and eating donated food. It was a snapshot of the bigger picture outside.

Looking around the house, for me it brought back memories of refugees from the Balkan wars. That same blank one minute, sobbing the next look of people who've been to hell and are still processing it. They were shell-shocked.

They would share their experiences with us, one mother and daughter telling how they lost a daughter and sister and son-in-law/brother-in-law. The tears and anguish flowed.

Suzanne and Geoff just weren't able to outrun the flames. It was a story they didn't want to tell, they didn't really want us intruding on their lives at this time, but it was a story they felt they had to tell. They knew the world was watching even though they could hardly bring themselves to watch the news. They knew that others like themselves needed all the help they could get.

It's humbling for us as journalists that at a time like this, they will trust us to honour their experience. I salute them for that.

Heather's story of a narrow escape in her car while her house burnt to the ground is one of so many in that community. She drove blindly through the smoke , salvaging only her car, her dog and her mobile phone battery charger. In a matter of minutes she lost everything. She almost lost her life.

She took us back up the Mountain - it was never going to be easy. Heather had access as a resident, but we didn't. Media were supposed to be escorted up on staggered media bus tours. We were travelling independently and with Heather behind the wheel we negotiated our way through a series of police cordons, designed to keep media and anyone else out.

"I looked outside my kitchen window and that's when I said - oh my god, the fires are here too, the fire's here at my house. And the smoke came into my house and I was just freaking because all I could smell was smoke," she told me.

Heather was one of about 150 people who would find refuge in the local fire station, cowering in fear as mountainous flames licked within 50 metres of the building.
She tells it this way: '

"I'm in the shed dazed, crying, screaming, just not knowing where to go, people all around, injured people, burnt people, cats, dogs, snakes, goats, everything was in that shed with us&"

Firemen and volunteers were outside hosing down the shed and the local pub. Both would survive the inferno but countless homes wouldn't.

You drive down the once leafy backstreets and see home after home razed to the ground, burnt out cars, remnants of lives lived, crockery and the likes. You see burnt-out car wrecks marked with tape. These are the vehicles people used to try and outrun the blaze. They couldn't and died inside.

You look out, too, on the endless landscape of scorched and blackened trees. It has the look of those photos of the Western Front in World War One. It's deathly quiet but for a gentle wind. But even a few days later, life returns - a lone kangaroo, the echo of birdsong.

When we were there, it was hard to picture the events that led to firestorm.

Temperatures in the mid-forties, winds gusting to 100kmh and all of this on top of a decade of drought. The brush and grass was tinder dry. It all made for a perfect storm. But when we were there, just four days later, the temperatures were sitting below 10 deg C. We were rugged up in coats and jerseys. But that, as they say, is Melbourne.

You're also struck by the apparently random and fickleness of nature. How and why did the flames track the way they did? How is that one house can be burnt to the ground while properties on either side were left largely untouched?

Much is now being made of the Civil Defence strategy. Up until now the choice has been with residents over whether they fight or flee the flames. Certainly in Kinglake, some people perished trying to save their homes while others successfully kept their properties standing by staying behind to fight.

Another moving aspect of the way Australia has responded, is the way people are pitching in and digging deep for the survivors. Not only is Heather now living in a house donated by strangers but she was also given $5000 and the promise of more help from a man who saw a distressing picture of her and her daughter Phoebe in the Melbourne Age. He made it his business to track them down and offer what he could.

There are many stories like that.

If you take a drive into the Kinglake Village you see more evidence of the same - truckloads of donated food and clothing are pouring in.

For me, it was a profoundly moving experience and the stuff of what really matters to me as a journalist. To be able to communicate other people's lives and sorrows, to assist in some small way in bringing their plight to the attention of others and to hopefully make a difference - that, for me, is what it's all about.

Watch Cameron's story tonight on SUNDAY, 7:30pm TV ONE

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