Australian community razed by fire dreads a sequel to its darkest hour

Kate Shuttleworth

KINGLAKE, AUSTRALIA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Low cloud hugs the hillside as the road curves, revealing a blue-hued forest punctuated with dead silvery-black branches – symbols of a scarred but resilient landscape and a community forever changed.

A sign comes into view: ‘Respect, Remember, 2009’.

Forty miles from Melbourne, Kinglake was at the epicentre of one of Australia’s worst disasters, the Black Saturday bush fires. Eleven years ago, an inferno tore through the location, killing 120 people in the immediate vicinity and another 53 in the wider area. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed.

As Australia confronts renewed tragedy in a wildfire emergency of unprecedented scale, the people who rebuilt their lives in Kinglake after losing everything fear a repeat.

“It’s triggering for so many people,” said Michelle French, 53.

ABOVE & BELOW: A landscape view in Kinglake National Park shows regenerated forest and dead trees and branches after the Black Saturday bush fires, in Victoria, Australia; and cleared dead wood sits in a pile on the forest floor of a private property in Humedale, near Kinglake PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE & BELOW: A view of a dam on Mark and Deb Morrow’s property in Kinglake West; and new growth is seen on a eucalyptus tree that was completely burned out in the 2009 Black Saturday fires

Kinglake residents do not have access to town water. Following the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires, bore water access points were established to prove free access to non-potable water

That February day in 2009, she and husband Colin and their children Darcy and Vanessa – then aged 11 and 10 – had an hour to gather their belongings. They packed into two cars with their dog and guinea pig and fled. The fire almost trapped them, she said, as they made a six-hour escape along blocked and dangerous roads.

All that remained of the Frenchs’ property – where they operated a school-camp business – was a swimming pool and a trailer stacked with canoes. A toilet block was standing but was close to collapse. In all, they lost 15 buildings. The only household items to survive were a red cast-iron pot and one of Colin’s shirts, which hung on a clothesline alongside melted pegs.

The Frenchs have rebuilt the camp facilities and opened an adventure-tourism business. But the fires are never far from their lives; in recent weeks, Michelle French arranged temporary accommodation for evacuees from fire-ravaged areas elsewhere in Victoria state. Among them was a mother with two children – one with asthma – seeking respite from smoke-filled air.

“I know how hard it is to accept help and generosity, but this is also about me – helping someone and doing my bit by paying forward. I got help when I needed it,” French said. “It’s about my healing process, too.

On one recent day they closed the camp due to smoke haze, with the air quality deemed hazardous by environmental officials.

Sitting at a picnic table with her Hungarian Vizsla dog called Nico, French recounted her family’s recovery.

Her resilience and humour stand out. Nico’s dog tag reads, “Get your people to call my people,” with a contact number on the back.

“I can’t complain, my kids are killing it,” she said.

Darcy, 22, is studying international relations in Paris. But he’s home for the Australian summer, helping out with his parents’ business.

Wearing a helmet and harness for treetop climbing and ziplining, he refuses to be defined by the fires. He has a tattoo on his thigh with the words “back yourself”.

As a child, Darcy didn’t comprehend the enormity of Black Saturday, which at first he thought was an adventure.

“It was only that night and into the next days that I realised that it was a horrible tragedy,” he said.

“At that age, when you find out that people from your school that you were talking to just days earlier had died, and that the dad of one of your best friends has died, you don’t know how to deal with it.”

While the Frenchs have picked up the pieces, others have not.

“There are people at the moment in the community who are at the lowest of the low – I don’t think they can get any lower – and you can trace so much of that back to Black Saturday,” Darcy said.

A University of Melbourne study found 26 per cent of people in the worst-hit areas – around double the national rate – showed signs of mental health problems in the four years after the fires, including post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress and depression.

On the road to Kinglake, the flag on the new Country Fire Authority station flies at half-staff out of respect for those that have lost their lives, including firefighters.

Some 1,500 firefighters are battling blazes in Victoria as fires that have killed at least 27 people burn across southeastern Australia. The state’s leader, Daniel Andrews, has pledged around USD2 million to review preparedness, relief and recovery procedures ahead of the next fire season.

“This is perhaps our new normal – where we’re going to see more and more of this ferocious and unprecedented fire activity coming to us much, much earlier,” he told a news conference in Melbourne.

Kinglake has been rebuilt. There are new brick houses, kindergartens, an architecturally designed church, restaurants and a shopping strip. The community-owned gas station that exploded on Black Saturday has been replaced by a larger, glossy-looking one.

Resident Kym Smith, 56, said her daughter Mykaela, who is now 21, went to 14 funerals after the fires. “My daughter was a stubborn child, she didn’t want  to go to any psychologists,” she said.It wasn’t until an incident much later that she agreed to speak to someone. Mykaela was alone at her boyfriend’s house when a refrigerator caught fire, leaving her inconsolable for hours, she said.

On Black Saturday, Smith, her husband Brendan and Mykaela had minutes to flee.

With the power out and the temperature hitting 113 degrees Fahrenheit, they were inside with the blinds down, playing Scrabble by candlelight.

Stepping outside, Brendan heard a sound like a thundering jet, Smith said, and saw flames jump 300 feet into the air as trees exploded along the street.

He ran inside and told his wife and daughter to grab their keys. They fled with no shoes – just the clothes they were wearing, and their dog and rabbit – as they drove away.

“If Brendan hadn’t gone out we would have been dead,” said Smith.

Smith said her husband was the most traumatised of the family.

Defying roadblocks a day later, he passed burned-out cars where people had been trapped and perished.

Back in the town, people gathered, their faces covered in soot. Goats and other animals were tied up to toilet blocks on the main street.

“It looked like a scene from a black and white war movie, there was no colour – only shades of gray, even the white lines on the road were gone,” she said.

Smith said some people urged her to leave Kinglake, but her attachment to the landscape here is strong.

The town lies beyond the urban fringe and is bordered by bushland, an environment she said she cannot leave after 33 years.

In Kinglake West, Deb and Mark Morrow, who lost their house on Black Saturday, said they are again living in a tinderbox.

Regenerated bushland next to their rebuilt home is bone-dry.

Between the dead timber and the new growth, Deb worries there is more fire fuel than before Black Saturday.

“The undergrowth is three times as bad as it was in 2009,” she said.

They have a dam that is always full of water. They installed a bore and maintain a buffer zone at the rear of the property, along with firefighting pumps and solar batteries.

They are almost self-sufficient, with chickens and a garden filled with corn, pumpkin and zucchini.

But the fear is always there. The threat of the return of fires has unnerved people in Kinglake.

They’ve worked hard to put their town back together.

“We think we can save the property if there’s another fire, but we do still live in fear,” said Deb.