Benbrika boasted of threats, court told

ACCUSED terrorist leader Abdul Nacer Benbrika warned a journalist he would never forgive him if he “used anything against” him in his report, the Supreme Court heard yesterday.
Prosecutor Richard Maidment, SC, said Benbrika was covertly recorded saying that he had told then-ABC journalist Nick McKenzie: “This life doesn’t cost nothing for me. Watch yourself . . . I’ll come to you . . . I know where you are.”
In the 2005 ABC interview, Benbrika said some people believed Jews might have been responsible for the September 11 attacks in the United States and that Osama bin Laden was a great man “and he is my brother, as is every Muslim”, Mr Maidment said.
Benbrika refused to condemn the London tube bombings, saying he did not know who had done them or why, and he was “shifty” in ducking questions about whether he supported violent jihad, Mr Maidment said.
Benbrika repeatedly said Islam forbade killing innocents but evaded questions about whether he considered Australians innocent, Mr Maidment said.
Asked by McKenzie whether he considered any Australians not innocent, Benbrika paused before saying: “I would like to advise John Howard not to send troops to Iraq.” He then said some Australians had burned mosques.
Mr Maidment said Benbrika was later covertly recorded saying that lying was “an art” and “you need to train yourself, when you lie, to remember. This is, by itself, a knowledge.”
Mr Maidment said Benbrika’s insincerity with McKenzie (now an Age journalist) was evident when the interview was contrasted with covert recordings in which Benbrika said: “When September 11 occurred, didn’t we feel happy?”
In a covert recording a week after the London bombings, one of Benbrika’s followers, Ezzit Raad, allegedly said of the death toll: “It should have been more.”
Benbrika and 11 other Melbourne Muslim men are charged with having been members of a terrorist organisation pursuing violent jihad. Several face other terror charges. All the men have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Benbrika described himself to the ABC as an Algerian-trained aircraft engineer who had been unable to find work in Australia since his arrival in 1989. He said he had studied religious texts, largely on his own, and taught Islam and Arabic, Mr Maidment said.
Benbrika had told his followers after the ABC interview that he had not needed to be clever as journalists were “stupid” because they did not understand Islamic law.
Benbrika tried to dissuade some of his colleagues from bashing a suspected informer because drawing police attention might interfere with the group’s real work, Mr Maidment said.
The trial continues before Justice Bernard Bongiorno.

First published in The Age.

A bike, a home, the budgies … CFA volunteers count their losses



SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Teagan clings to her new dolly, named Cindy II in memory of the first Cindy, who had come for Christmas. She stops dead in what used to be the front yard. “My bike,” she murmurs. She studies the twisted pile of metal and its one remaining pink handlebar.
“Where’s my stuff?” she asks at last.
“Your stuff is just over there, sweetie,” says her father, Steve Nash. She looks blankly at the blackened pile, raises a hand in a helpless gesture and shrugs. She has no words for this.
Her father takes Teagan and her brother Lachlan, 5, down into the pit that used to be their house. Behind them, the children’s playhouse and swings are still standing. “On that Saturday night when the house was still burning I came and took some clothes off the line,” he says. “They were untouched. We’ve still got some underwear and socks.” He grins. “If I’d known it was going to come through I would have done a bigger load of washing!”
Steve Nash is one of 10 Kinglake CFA volunteers who lost their homes while they were out fighting fires for other people. Now he is sifting through rubble and trying to persuade Teagan that her teacher will not be upset about the loss of the class budgies, with which Teagan had been entrusted.
Mr Nash’s colleague and neighbour in the same street, Tricia Hill, spent part of Saturday trying to look after a distressed colleague whose partner was desperate for advice on where to take their children for safety. “She was on the phone to her missus, who was driving through the fire with their two children, so I just kept coming back to the truck to support her.” The partner was told to go to the CFA station and after that the firefighter was able to concentrate on her work.
MsHill knew her own three children were off the mountain. She hopes she never has to choose between her CFA duty and them.
As it was, when her tanker passed by her house that night and she saw it was alight, “We didn’t have time to stop.”
The only things she has left are the fired ceramics that she had made. Fellow firefighter Ben Hutchinson drops to his knees in what used to be her living room and starts lifting shattered mud bricks. She hasbeen fretting for her dog and that’s where they think it might be.
Mr Hutchinson is camping out on friends’ floors. He thought the big clear space in front of his house would protect it. He was out of luck. Even his fire extinguisher exploded.
All of them talk about how lucky they are. They have seen what happened to others; Kinglake firefighters were the first to walk into many burnt-out homes whose owners hadn’t made it.
Country firefighters don’t usually worry about formal stuff, but last week the Kinglake brigade was measured for dress uniforms. There will be a lot of funerals to go to, and they want to have a brigade representative at every one.First published in The Age

Stuff of legend



One woman’s struggle for survival has captured the imagination, writes Karen Kissane in Kinglake.
SHE has a burned bottom and blistered feet, a hacking cough and a voice still husky from smoke. But not so husky she can’t retell the story of her escape from Saturday’s bushfire. In a town full of escape stories, hers has become the most famous. Police and ambulance officers suspect she is a rural myth until they meet her: “Oh my God, you’re Gemma and you’re alive!”
Her real name is not Gemma. She is a barrister and protective of her privacy. She lived in an eyrie of a house surrounded by national park bush high on the ridge of Bald Spur Road, where only one house is left standing. She has been a member of the local CFA for years and it was a combination of that training, her cool head and the courage of a friend that saved her life.
She left the CFA station to return home when she heard a fire front was heading her way.
“Everything happened very quickly. I heard this roaring like 200 jet aeroplanes,” she said. She saw it racing up the valley at the side of her house. She didn’t know it was also coming up the valley on the other side of the house, catching her in a pincer movement. She stayed outside with the hose to douse the ember attack: “It was a massive hailstorm of embers. I was showered with them.”
Almost instantly “everything exploded in flame. It was just metres from me. I had my CFA jacket and I pulled it up to protect my face. I just dropped the hose and ran into a wallaby that had come screaming in at the same time and collided with me.”
Then the second fire hit. “All the windows of the house exploded in and flames were exploding in with them and blowing embers right through the main living area of the house. I thought, ‘I could die here.’ I felt the panic rise but I kept pushing it back down and thinking, ‘I am not going to succumb!’ All I had was three buckets of water and a mop and all I could think of was my wooden wall. I ripped all the calendars and photos off the wall and tried to mop that surface so that wouldn’t ignite.”
She saw that where the wall joined the ceiling was catching: “I was trying to slosh water up onto the join where I could see fire. I realised it was completely futile because it was happening in more than one place. That’s where you need a hose in the house.” She wanted to watch the ceiling to judge when she should dash out to avoid it falling on her, but the smoke was thick and full of toxic fumes.
She remembered that chimneys were usually the last thing left standing after a fire. Hers had an alcove that was double brick on three sides. She crawled into it and lay on the ground gasping for air.
When she realised the worst of the fire had passed she put her shoulder through the remaining glass of one window. She got round to the flagstones and realised the whole house was on fire.
“I had to crawl through a fence. Then I started to weave between the trees and go up the road. I was having real trouble breathing because my lungs and throat were badly affected. I had grabbed a couple of water bottles out of the fridge … I had lost one of them and I only had a little bit of water in the other one. I had to sit down because I was having trouble breathing. I put my torch on the ground and sat on it and sheltered my head in my arms, just waiting for the heat to dissipate. The torch melted and burned my backside and I could feel my heels blistering, even inside my CFA boots. I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter if my backside gets burned. Just breathe!”‘
She decided to try to walk the four kilometres to where her street joined the main road. Her arms and legs were numb. After nearly passing out twice she gave up and lay on the road in recovery position.
Then she realised her mobile was still in her top pocket. “This is normally the sort of place where you have to stand on one leg and hold your breath to get reception. I pulled it out and couldn’t see properly to work out any numbers.”
She thought the local 000 service would be jammed and chaotic. By feel, she punched out the number of a friend in East Gippsland – “and to my amazement she answered!” Gemma told her where she was and that she needed oxygen and an intravenous drip. Just to be sure, she also phoned a friend in Bacchus Marsh.
But it was a friend closer to home who rescued her. This is the reason the private Gemma is telling the story – she wants Lorraine Casey to be recognised for her bravery. Gemma’s phone rang and it was Lorraine, who had been sheltering in town. Gemma told her she had already phoned for help.
“Right,” said Lorraine, who grabbed a neighbour and drove over and past and around the burning trees, burnt-out cars and fallen power lines on the main road.
At the top of Bald Spur Road, Lorraine got out of the car and manoeuvred her way with a torch until she found Gemma, who had been huddled for hours. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the flashlight.”
Lorraine, who also lost her Kinglake home, half carried her back to the car and then to the CFA shed. From there, local police drove her to Whittlesea and safety.
Yesterday, Gemma went back to the remains of her home. She doesn’t know whether she will rebuild: “It feels like the place has been devastated. So many people in the street above and below me are dead. It’s hard to speak about.”
One thing she does know: “Lorraine saved my life.”

First published in The Age.

A whack on the bum as Rudd plays Kinglake everyman

KINGLAKE resident Gayle Rider didn’t want to shake Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s hand yesterday. “I’m so dirty,” she said apologetically. Bushfire towns do kick up a lot of dust. “I don’t give a bugger,” Mr Rudd said, and kissed her on the cheek.
At the CFA station, he autographed a newspaper for firefighter Steve Bell. The man bent double so Mr Rudd could use him as a flat surface. He griped: “They bloody use me for everything around here, even a table.” The Prime Minister grinned and used the paper to thwack him on the bum. Did he want this done or not? The crew exploded with laughter. One yelled: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
Not everyone was delighted to see the national leader in a little town that usually felt remote from government and had never had a prime ministerial visit before. “Rah, rah,” said one Kinglake woman offered the chance to meet him. She kept walking.
With those he met, Mr Rudd did not put a foot wrong. He started each exchange with a simple, “Hi, I’m Kevin.”
A quick glance established whether his new acquaintance was holding together and a handshake would do, or whether it should be an arm across the shoulder or a full hug. One small woman stood on tiptoe with her face buried in his shoulder for long moments and wept. He held her quietly until she was ready to move away.
Everyone wanted to be photographed with him, including a woman with a T-shirt that read: “I STILL love Kinglake.”
He agreed to every request, which explained why he was running three hours late.
Lots of people had requests. Virginia Scully told him: “Straight up – I didn’t vote for you.” And then demanded he see to it that CFA firefighters, who are all volunteers protecting private property out of a sense of community spirit, are freed from having to pay rates.
The residents wanted it for them. A farmer wanted help with his water permits. The Vietnamese family who ran the town’s bakery needed help with their visas – they did not qualify for bushfire aid.
Cheryl Phillips wanted nothing for herself but wanted something in memory of her close friend, Sue Hyde, who died in the fires. Mrs Hyde and her husband, Geoff, had spent 12years working tirelessly through the local market and other fund-raising efforts to get money for a children’s adventure playground based on the best-selling Bollygum picture book.
Kinglake had only a small playground for the under-fives, which had been used by kids of all ages because there was nothing else. Now, because of the fire, the town lost even that.
Mrs Hyde had helped the town raise half the money. Could Mr Rudd help? “We’ll make that happen,” he said.
Mr Rudd himself had two messages. To those in trouble, he said: “Hang in there. We will be in there for the long haul.” To those who were helping, it was a simple: “Thank you. Great work.”
At Wandong, which had lost at least three residents and 200 homes, he told hundreds at an open-air church service they were not alone. “Together we rebuild – brick by brick, house by house, street by street. We rebuild, and we rebuild together. Not just for tomorrow, not just for next week and not just for next month, but until this community is rebuilt completely.
“We intend and resolve to be with you every step of the way from here. It is an easy thing to say. It is a much harder thing to do, but I am determined that we will honour this commitment to you and each of these communities that have been ravaged by these fires.”
A thunderous applause erupted as Mr Rudd acknowledged the efforts of the CFA, saying firefighters had “genuine guts and genuine strength” for putting “yourselves last and these communities first”.
First published in The Age.

After fear, hope a town on the road back to life



If the tragedy of the fires has shown one thing, it is that life persists even in the face of death. With kindness, courage and a dose of black humour, Kinglake is beginning the long struggle out of the abyss. Karen Kissane reports.
A BUSHFIRE has its own unexpected beauty. In the evenings, through the smoky haze that hangs over Kinglake, there is a ruby grapefruit moon. Early this week it was full, a round bright salmon globe in the sky. Even the heavens here seem to belong to a different world.
There is a practical explanation for it. Local astronomer Steve Fleming will tell you it is because light is made up of all colours, but as it passes through dust and smoke they are scattered. Red makes it through because it has the longest wavelength. The fact that it can be explained does not make it any less beautiful.
So, too, with the kindness of strangers. The hundreds of men and women who have descended on this beleaguered little town at its time of direst need mostly wear uniforms because they belong to an organisation that has been set up to help. That does not make their wry humour and steady kindness any less sweet.
A woman whose face was covered in a thick, grey crust came into the phone centre set up in a local restaurant this week. She was fine, she reassured others cheerfully. It was just the radiant burns to her face from when she was in the car during the bushfire. The skin had died and would soon slough off. It was only when talk turned to how wonderful the phone technicians had been that she began to cry.
“I feel so humbled,” she said. “So humbled. So many people have come to help us.”
The people of Kinglake have themselves been working ferociously to help their town rise from the ashes. The job of rebuilding life after catastrophic death and destruction has begun.
While soldiers and police discreetly continue the hideous task of recovering bodies from the rubble – up to 400 of Kinglake’s 680 houses are thought to be gone – an army of volunteers feeds not just the homeless but anyone on the mountain who needs a meal. Given that there is still no power, that is a lot of people. Apex member Steve Mead came from Rowville to spend eight hours chopping that day’s 30 kilos of onions for the production line of steak sandwiches, burgers and snags served outside the services office that has become the relief centre. By the end of it he had to have his eyes washed out at the bush hospital that has been set up in a couple of tents. His only gripe was a mock one, made when TV cameras went to pass him by: “No one notices the onion man.”
An ice-cream company sends a truck every day with a beaming man who presses free cones on everyone he meets. Schoolkids make their own small gesture. “For you and everyone helping up there,” said the smiley-face note from Emma, who sent a lunchbox of home-made chocolate chip cookies. A lingerie company donated frothy things for women who had lost everything but the clothes they wore. It led to an immortal line from a woman keen to pick some up for a friend. Hands on hips, she demanded of a mutual acquaintance, “What’s her boobage?”
There were lots of bawdy jokes this week. Sex and death, the two Freudian big ones. On Thursday volunteer vet Judith Mulholland was walking around with a tiny, baby sugar-glider in her bra. Every now and then it went walkabout: “No, no, get out of my armpit,” she squawked, clutching at herself. The orphaned bundle of fur, only a few centimetres long, had been found when it scurried across a road and up a firefighter’s boot. He had handed it to Mulholland. “I’m a horse vet. What am I going to do with a possum?” she had protested. Like everyone else up here who is determined to do whatever needs to be done, she worked it out fast.
She missed her baby the next day when he was handed over to the cleavage of a wildlife rescue volunteer, where he was wrapped in a sock and given a syringe of water to suck, providing great material for her comedian mates. “Every man’s dreams,” chuckled one. “He’s got his own airbags,” cracked another.
A young mother stopping for a chat confided the highlight of her day: a group of handsome young police dropping their strides as she walked by so they could change clothes. She mimed a vaudevillian double-take: “I thought, ‘Where’s my girlfriend who’s eternally single?’ There were a couple of sets of nice legs, enough to brighten the day, and every woman loves a man in uniform.” Even more so if he is out of it, it seems.
In the midst of death, life.
The reason people can joke is because things are happening to get life back to the new normal. Great convoys of white trucks are rumbling over the mountaintop carrying electricity crews and power poles. There is a huge tanker with fuel in the main street every day decanting 20 litres into individual cars and jerry cans. The Department of Human Services and Centrelink have been in town since Monday helping with emergency payments. Visitors to the relief centre bump into counsellors at every turn. Well-known locals such as Jenny and Peter Beales – she a former guide leader and he a retired policeman – staff the inquiry desk 16 hours a day, helping with everything from generator problems to distressed people who have been given bad news by police.
Showers and dunnies have arrived. Police and soldiers are all over the place. The town’s two water tankers have been reinforced with another seven trucks from outside. A mobile youth centre blares out pop music and offers kids computers and video games.
Everyone’s spirits rose with the arrival of a cappuccino machine. Donated food spills out onto the pavement and unpretentious locals don’t know what to make of the mountains of clothes. A farmer asking for new trousers baulked at the stylish jeans handed to him. “They’re good trousers,” he protested. He looked down at his battered work pants: “Haven’t you got something more like these?”
Even people who have lost their homes take sparingly; a pair of work boots, perhaps. They say there are others more in need. That is code for, “I didn’t lose anyone.”
At the centre of the storm of activity is the extraordinary woman running this show: local resident and community leader Anne Leadbeater. Her formal title is community facilitator for Murrindindi Shire. This last week she has been all things to all people: instructing, cajoling, comforting and organising. While running the twice-daily community meetings, she would put the microphone down when she had to weep and then pick it up and barrel on again. The suffering etched on the faces of her audience often brought her undone, partly because it reminded her of her own: two members of her family have lost their homes and dear friends have died.
Spookily, she knows about disaster relief because she has just finished a master’s thesis on the topic. Does it feel a little as if she has summoned the experience she is having? “It does feel like calling down the devil,” she agrees.
In running the recovery effort here, she has kept in mind four principles she learned from Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin: “You need to tell people what you know, what you don’t know, what we can do and what we need them to do.”
The first and most urgent need was fuel. People were terrified there might be another fire and they had no petrol left to run fire pumps and generators for power.
Next was communications. A Telstra techie slept in his car so that he could stay and help set up a satellite dish and wi-fi. Helpers from off the mountain quickly realised the need to keep it simple. One technician arrived looking neat and tidy with a spiel along the lines of, “Hello, I’m from Telstra and here is what I can do for you.” After 24 hours in a smoke-filled hall full of frightened people at Toolangi, she says, he arrived back at Kinglake red-eyed and dishevelled, just like the natives.
His message had changed to one that could be more easily understood by people in shock who were having trouble processing information: “Phones! Me!”
By week’s end, people were starting to think beyond immediate needs. Families who had evacuated have started to drift back. Some older couples have said they would not rebuild; it is too much at their time of life. But families like the Reads, whose three-storey house on Bald Spur Road is a wreck, plan to return.
They were off the mountain at a medical appointment when the fire struck. “Anyone that stayed died, so we were lucky,” says Steve Read of his street. His neighbour managed to get out just in time: “He’s a big bloke, but he got knocked onto the ground when our house exploded 200 metres away.”
Lee-Anne Read can’t look at what remains of her home without weeping. She wandered disconsolately around the block pointing out where her roses and lavender used to be. But Summer, 12, has brought a camera to practise her photography and for Edan, 9, it’s a boy’s paradise full of mysterious artefacts. “We will rebuild,” Steve says. “But we will set up a fire plan and then go if this ever happens again. You can rebuild everything but your life.”
The town remains swathed in a smoky haze from burn-offs, local blow-ups and the fire at Healesville. Patches of ground that have had thousands of litres of water poured on them continue to smoulder menacingly.
Even if there is no second serious fire, there are hard times ahead. Says Anne Leadbeater: “In a sense it’s an empowering thing to stare into the abyss. Everything else must be bearable because we wore that. At the same time you wonder how you are going to bear what is to come. What I am thinking about next is funerals. (It is thought that more than 50 have died here). We will have potentially a funeral a day for a very long time. We have to deal with that as individuals and as a community. It’s going to be very hard.”
But it cannot be avoided: “We can’t say, ‘I don’t want to know about this any more.’ This is reality now. This is what our community looks like now. We have to forge a new sense of ourselves. I know that we will be OK. I just don’t know what OK looks like yet.”

First published in The Sunday Age

A raging inferno, two fire trucks, and no help

VICTORIA’S DARKEST DAYS – PLEAS IN VAIN – ‘They wouldn’t listen’


GETTING abused by people whose lives he tried to save was not the hardest part. Chris Lloyd knew they were panicked and lost. Kinglake people were fleeing down the road to Whittlesea on Saturday afternoon not knowing that 70-metre flames were racing towards them.
He blocked the road with his car and copped it for his trouble. “You can’t stop us,” they screamed at him.
Legally, he could not. He rang the local police and they arrived to direct the motorists elsewhere. Earlier he found what he calls “another act of enormous stupidity”: motorists out of their cars by the roadside photographing an approaching fire with mobile phones. He cursed them and told them to get the hell out of there.
Yesterday he sat on a wooden sleeper in his driveway in the early morning light. His face was lined with weariness after yet another 12-hour night shift dousing embers, spot fires and “candles”: blackened trees with a flame going up inside.
He slowly made his way through his makeshift breakfast of sandwich and coffee. His partner Debbie Donald sat with him and stroked him whenever it all got too much. He had a lot of hard stories to tell before he reached the hardest part.
Mr Lloyd is with the CFA Lower Yarra group. On Saturday he worked at Kinglake West, where lives and hundreds of houses were lost.
He remembers with anger the people in Coombes Road, one of the hardest-hit areas, who refused to be evacuated.
“Some wouldn’t move,” he recalls. “They wanted to stay and defend their homes and they just weren’t equipped. They said they had equipment and they said they were prepared. It was evident to us that some of them weren’t.
“They weren’t appropriately clothed; some were wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts. They were some of those who perished. I know there was an awful lot of loss down that area.”
When they would not move, he says, “I was beside myself in some respects and so were the others that were with us. We were there trying to save people by trying to stop the spread of the fire. It was clearly beyond the resources we had available to us.”
But that was not the hardest part.
An army chaplain comes up Lloyd’s driveway with six reservists. They are checking every property and noting infrastructure damage. Mr Lloyd thanks a soldier for coming: “Trust me, it’s very much appreciated.” His eyes fill with tears. That awful day, there was no help. Kinglake had just two fire trucks on the mountain and they were 12 kilometres apart. They were alone with the inferno. “Our captain was trying hard to get other resources and I was trying hard to get other resources, but they just weren’t there to be had,” Mr Lloyd says.
Maybe aircraft would have made a difference, he says, “but the distance of the spotting, the forward rate of speed was essentially unstoppable. The important thing that needs to be said here is that you can’t blame anyone for this, for how it unfolded. I know there are things we need to do better. I think the CFA is an organisation that has a number of things it needs to do.”
That day Mr Lloyd was not on a truck but in a command car. He moved between Kinglake West and Kinglake. After checking that both stations were adequately protected, he went back to his rented house in Victoria Avenue, Kinglake. He soaked it and sprayed it with foam and did the same for a neighbour’s house.
When a gum tree in his backyard “crowned” in flames, it was time to get out. “I didn’t want to get killed twice by Deb,” he says. She nods: “I would have kicked his sorry arse.”
Mr Lloyd refuses to take credit, pointing out that other neighbours came back and spent all night dousing ember attacks. But without his efforts, it is probable that the only seven houses standing in Victoria Avenue owe their continued existence to him.
Twenty-six houses and two units further down are blackened rubble. At least one neighbour was killed, trying to move her horses.
Ms Donald has been keeping a tally of local people believed to have died. She stopped when it got to 54.
Mr Lloyd looks at her and his shoulders shake. “While I was hosing here, the (children of a certain family) might have been dying around in Reserve Road,” he says.
She is quick to reassure him: that had happened earlier in the afternoon. His hoses would not have stretched that far. There is only so much you can do. “You’re not the Elvis helicopter, baby,” she says.
He says: “Do I need to learn to fly now?”
“You need to learn to swim, baby, because we’re going to Queensland.”
“Bloody cyclone will get us then.”
He says: “There are people so traumatised by loss of their properties and loved ones that they are blaming us firies. Where we have had our own houses saved, they have been blaming us for not saving theirs.
“That’s the sense of hopelessness. You want to be all things to all people but you can only do some things for some people.”
Survivor guilt – that’s the hardest part.

First published in The Age.

Arms and ears open as people return


THE most common sight in Kinglake is people hugging and crying as they run into each other in the main street, either out of grief for a shared loss or relief that they are still alive. “I’m all right,” growled one farmer after a heartfelt embrace. “But I’m looking for some cows. Seen any cows?”
Yesterday the hug-index rose as many residents who had been evacuated to Whittlesea returned to what did or did not remain of their homes in Kinglake after the road was opened to locals. They were joined by 90 army reservists who arrived to help with the clean-up and who will camp out in hoochees on the footy oval.
A town silent in its desolation two days ago is now buzzing with petrol tankers and emergency services trucks, as well as more than 40 counsellors and chaplains wandering at large to listen to anyone who wants to talk. Volunteers at the local council office are dealing with hundreds of people a day wanting advice or just a kind ear; one minute the volunteers are helping find a generator, the next comforting someone who has lost their whole family.
The pub with no beer has donated its lounge as the communications hub. A table is littered with dozens of mobile phone chargers; the Telstra techies keeping the wobbly wi-fi and mobile phone system afloat are sleeping on the hotel’s couches at night. Ambulance officers are running a bush hospital for minor injuries in a couple of marquees.
The bushfire-recovery leader, Anne Leadbeater, says the response from service agencies has been remarkable: “I am conscious that the people who are coming here to help us are being traumatised as well. I can see it in their faces. We are really grateful for them enduring that too.”
Police, army reservists and sniffer dogs are continuing to search burnt-out homes for missing people.
The road from Whittlesea to Kinglake was partially opened yesterday after angry residents marooned on the mountain heckled Mrs Leadbeater, who told them the town did not have enough food, shelter or counsellors to cope with the 1000 evacuees expected to return over time. An 8pm curfew remains on the road due to the risk of trees falling across it in the dark. “That will be reviewed daily,” Mrs Leadbeater said.
She told a community meeting it was hoped that the main street would have electricity about tomorrow. Donated clothes and food are available.
Residents were warned to clear rotting food and to take care disposing of animal carcasses for public health reasons.First published in The Age.

Parents struggle for words, but school roll tells the tale

The boys charge down the slide and manfully shovel sand with spades as long as they are. The big girls run around on top of the brightly coloured equipment and the little ones draw butterflies.
Mothers and teachers stand chatting around the edge of mulch. A boy catches sight of his teacher and races over to hug her, shouting with delight, ”You’re here!” She hugs him back, fiercely. Then she looks into his eyes and says, ”You were really worried about me. I heard that you were all right and I cheered yes! Yes!” Reassured, he runs back to play. But when the teacher straightens, her eyes go blank. She tells a second teacher that children have been running up to her saying that this child or that child ”is gone”. They tell her it means there will be fewer names on the roll now. She has lost three children from her class to the deadly fires.
She names them. Her friend gasps at the third name in disbelief; she hadn’t heard that one. The first teacher says simply, ”She’s gone. The whole family has gone.” Their brave front crumbles and they fall into each other’s arms, weeping.
Welcome to morning playtime at Kinglake Primary.
Many of the parents and teachers here are refugees from Middle Kinglake Primary School, which has been razed. Each of the three local schools is believed to have suffered loss of life. The rising death toll now includes at least four families in which both parents and all children died. If there is one question exercising the minds of most parents of young children in the devastated town, it is, ”What do we tell the children?” Parents who are themselves distraught over the loss of family, friends or homes must work out how to tell their children necessary truths without unnecessarily traumatising them. For many at this special playtime an informal gathering for two hours a day in a bid for something approaching normality the answer has been to tell them little or nothing yet of the deaths of other children. But the evidence of the fire’s destruction is all about them and that cannot be hidden. Karen Collyer lives in a part of town virtually untouched by the blaze. She prepared her two boys for what they would see when they left the neighbourhood the still-smouldering ruins and the bare trees standing like grim dark sentinels. She says she doesn’t know what her older son made of that first trip. ”He was just really quiet in the back of the car. I don’t know if they fully understand what has gone on.” She is still trying to get her head around how best to tell him the worst news: ”One of the little girls that perished was playing in our pool the week before. I don’t think he’s ready for that just yet.” Another mother in tears at the edge of the playground was asking the same question: how was she to tell her little girl that she will never see her friend again?
Parents struggling to find the words are struggling against the clock. Some children have heard of friends’ deaths for the first time on the TV news reports. Kinglake principal Ros Fleming said, ”Things are not confirmed but the names are on the news.” So children who were sent off the mountain while their parents stayed are being shielded from TV news until their families are reunited. At a community meeting yesterday, resident Anne Leadbeater begged parents to ask children not to text sad news to their friends. ”Kids are getting text messages about their friends when their parents are not with them. Talk with them about how this information needs to be shared.” Counsellor Trish Quibell and a colleague from Berry Street family service were talking to parents at the playground. She said, ”One of the best things the community has done is reopen part of the school. It’s given normality to the kids and given comfort to the parents to see the kids playing.” She understood their bewilderment. ”Parents are really worried about telling their children about this because they never thought they would have to. We tell them there is no perfect way to tell a child about a death. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but we tell them that they know their own children better than anyone.” Daniel Forde knows what she means. Responding to a remark that his two boys are playing happily, he says laconically, ”They haven’t seen the house yet.” His home was destroyed. He brought the boys here because where he is staying with his mother at Glendbourne, everything is blackened. He wanted them to see some green.
First published in The Canberra Times.

Battle to save lives against unpredictable enemy

“You know those T-shirts that say, ‘I’m a firefighter. If you see me running, follow’? It was like that.”

Karen Kissane

Kinglake CFA’s Paul Hendrie tells Karen Kissane of the difficult fight to save lives under grave threat.
PAUL Hendrie, captain of the Kinglake CFA, woke up on Saturday knowing it was going to be a “really, really bad day”.
City folks want to know why so many people died in Kinglake, why there was no warning, and why there were no firetrucks in town to protect them. Mr Hendrie can tell them. And he can also tell them how it was that so many were saved, because he was the one who helped organise the rescue effort.
That morning, Mr Hendrie went up the CFA station at the end of the main street. He and his team listened to the radio and the scanner and used the internet to map nearby fires. They checked that the town’s two water tankers were ready to roll. Then they sat around and drank water and waited, as the calls became more urgent and the maydays began.
They received a call in the afternoon asking for help from the town of St Andrews, about 15 kilometres down the mountain. Mr Hendrie sent one of Kinglake’s two tankers. “Then we got another call. And against my better judgement, we sent the second tanker out, which meant there was nothing on the mountain.”
Mr Hendrie was philosophical about his decision. “You fight the fire you’ve got. You can’t predict the predicament that will come.”
Mr Hendrie found himself at the station with just a command car and three or four crew members. The radio traffic increased; the fire had jumped a road into St Andrews. He knew some Kinglake people were fleeing in that direction. He called police to ask for a blockade but they were already stretched too tight. “If they went through, if they got caught, it would have just been carnage,” he says.
He jumped in a brigade car with a white-knuckled colleague and they sped down the St Andrews road, watching for spot fires, seeing embers burning in the leaves along its edges. As he passed cars going down, he shouted at those inside: “Get back up! Just go, go, go!”
He reached a man fleeing back to Kinglake who told him he just got out of St Andrews in time. It was then that Mr Hendrie did a U-turn and herded the other cars back to town.
“You know those T-shirts that say, ‘I’m a firefighter. If you see me running, follow’? It was like that,” he said.
Back in Kinglake, he used cars to block the start of the St Andrews road.
There were cars everywhere. People were asking him where they should go. He knew they could not go to Kinglake West in one direction and St Andrews in the other.
Then the wind changed. “People were saying there was no warning, but there was no time. The wind changed. It was originally blowing north-west (blowing the fire across the base of the mountain) and it changed to south-east (blowing the flames up the mountain). It was the wind that did it.”
It moved fast. Mr Hendrie and others in town said they were aware of the fire’s approach only a few minutes before it was upon them. One woman discovered it was close when her windows exploded. Many families realised their danger only when they heard the roar of the flames – by which time it was too late to flee.
Mr Hendrie told frightened residents all he could offer them was the main street of the town, which he thought would be fairly safe. There was a clear piece of parkland, and he thought the shops would resist the fire pretty well. Hundreds gathered in the parkland, and hundreds more in the metal shed that is the CFA station. Those in the oval covered themselves in towels wet with ice from a chest that had spent the previous night at a buck’s party.
Inside the station, says Mr Hendrie, “there was just people everywhere … It was stinking hot in there and water was all over the floor. The smoke was coming in.”
It was like Noah’s ark: “There were all the animals. People brought all of their dogs with them. I am surprised that none of the dogs even attacked each other.”
“Some people panicked a bit. ‘What are we going to do?’ At one stage I screamed at the top of me lungs, ‘Quiet! Come on! This is what we are going to do!’ We set up quickfills (water-containers). We had plenty of water. We opened up the drinking tank too and wet all around the station …
“Once I told people to calm down, that we were safe, that nothing was going to happen to them – but I didn’t know that! – they were calm.”
People hosed the building and grass around it. They could see the red glow of the fire over the ridge of the hill at the other end of the main street, licking up from St Andrews.
“Then all of a sudden there was this black. The column of fire came up virtually over us. It spotted into the paddock and the trees behind the station. It burnt it all. We heard cars exploding. The service station went up. Hundred-pound gas tanks were going up – just going BANG!, the loudest sound I have ever heard. It just got worse and there was blackness all over.”
And then it passed. They got out into the still-thick smoke and began hosing the embers to prevent spot fires. “We could see buildings burning in the main street – the pizza place and the servo went together.”
The wounded began to arrive. Some had burns, others had injured airways because of the smoke and heat. He later heard that at the height of the drama a pregnant woman gave birth in a car eight weeks early.
He got a call to help a woman who had breathing problems. “I went down and these people had died on the corner of Reserve Road. When I got there, the grandfather is saying, ‘They are all dead, six of me kids. They are all dead.’ I had come for this woman who couldn’t breathe and it turned out it was his wife. She had been in there and she somehow got out.
“We had no oxygen to give her. I thought, I know where we can get oxygen, the SES. But the SES was gone.”
The fire came so fast SES crews did not even have time to rescue the trucks. Someone broke into the doctor’s surgery and retrieved some oxygen, and nurses among the crowd started to treat the injured.
Ambulances could not get up the mountain to rescue those needing hospital care. It was impassable with boulders, broken power lines and fallen, burning trees. But a CFA strike team and SES crews with bulldozers churned through the worst of it, and local police ferried the injured to Whittlesea in their patrol cars.
Next Mr Hendrie had to deal with the burning houses still alight. He also made several visits to the primary school, where 30 or so people had sheltered near large water tanks.
He was on his feet for 40 hours straight, and many of his crew were too. Then he got four hours’ sleep and began all over again.
Of the people who sheltered with him and his members in the station, he says, “I’m not sure that I saved them. I’m sure it was just luck that we didn’t have a massive ember attack in this street.”
Mr Hendrie has had 33 years in firefighting and he says he has never seen this fire’s match in either speed or ferocity. He is concerned that when his crews finally stop, the shock of what they have seen will hit them.
He has had his own feelings to deal with too. He wept with relief when he got to the driveway of his daughter’s house after the fire had passed and discovered that his children and grandchildren were all safe.

First published in The Age.

Families beyond reach


THE road into Kinglake will remain closed because trees were still falling, bodies had not yet been recovered from burnt-out cars and the town was not ready to cope with the return of 1000 evacuees who would be traumatised by what they found, angry residents were told at a community meeting yesterday.
“The roads will be closed until bodies are recovered, the roads are safe to travel and until we are ready and able to support our families and friends when they do return,” community-building facilitator for Kinglake Anne Leadbeater said.
“Does anybody have a view on that?”
The crowd roared and one person called out, “EVERYbody has a problem with that!”
Mrs Leadbeater replied: “We don’t have anywhere for them to sleep, we don’t have enough ways to feed them and we don’t have enough people here to support their emotional needs. I will go down and lie on that road rather than have these people come up here and not be supported.”
She told the crowd they were remarkable and that they would need to draw on their strength in coming days: “If we think it’s bad now, when our families and friends get back up here its going to be much, much worse. We have seen what happened and we can take strength that we are still here.
“One thousand people who live in this area haven’t seen what we’ve seen. We need to steel ourselves for when they come back, and it’s going to be a job and a half. If we get hung up on details it will sink this ship.”
Mrs Leadbeater said she and her husband had fought the fire as their family sheltered inside their home: “Every single emotion you are feeling I am sharing. I want for you what you want.”
Residents have been told they are allowed to leave the town but that those who left would not be allowed back until the roads were reopened. Many were frustrated that family and supplies were out of their reach unless they chose to become temporary refugees.
The Kinglake death toll is expected to rise. More police reinforcements arrived yesterday to section off the town and search it sector by sector for missing people. Search and rescue dogs were brought in.
Trying to calm anger over the road closure, police officer Sergeant Jon Ellks asked for patience: “Every single day we are going to a different place and you all know what we are finding. It’s still going on.”
The mountain is still without power. A fuel tanker arrived with 8000 litres each of diesel and unleaded petrol for cars and generators.
Officials from the Department of Human Services and Centrelink arrived to provide emergency funding but residents who had been issued cheques pointed out there was no way to cash them.
Country Fire Authority workers were yesterday trying to quell two small fires close to town and deal with smouldering timber. While clouds of smoke were drifting from roots, logs and mulch in some areas, the acrid smell of burn finally began to clear from the air.
Stray animals are being evacuated but carcasses cannot be removed yet.First published in The Age.