Families adjust to new normal in ‘town too tough to die’


TRICIA Hill is living in borrowed caravans with her three children on her burnt-out block in Kinglake. She has no power or running water.
The mornings can be tricky, she grins. The first day, her daughter said she needed a toilet. “I said, ‘Go for a bushie.’ She said ‘Mum, there’s no bushes!”‘ They drove to the local CFA station, where Ms Hill is a member, to use its bathroom. That is part of their daily routine as life returns to the new “normal” after Black Saturday.
It sounds rugged, but she considers herself lucky: “There’s a waiting list for vans or any accommodation here, really. We did hear on the grapevine that they said they would give us some portable homes, but there’s no word on that.”
She does not want to move out of the area, even though her work as an events manager assistant takes her to town: “All I want is to go home and this is home. There’s nowhere else to live up here, and downtown doesn’t feel right.”
Her younger children – Linden, 13, and Sancha, 12 – are in the smaller caravan. Her son Jorden, 15, needs the greater length of the bed in the second caravan. Ms Hill sleeps in the third, and its annexe – put up with the help of volunteers during a rainstorm – is their living area.
Tied to a tent-peg is the frisky black puppy she was given to replace the family dog lost in the fire. Ms Hill has not lost her sense of humour; the new one is named Ember.
When it gets cold she lights a fire in the old metal keg that is one of the few things to have survived the flames. But the snowy Kinglake winters are bitter and she hopes to have her shed up within two months so the family can live there until their mudbrick home is rebuilt.
Meanwhile, she is trying to work her way through the bureaucratic maze of forms, information and misinformation involved in trying to re-build life for her family.
What she misses most about her old life, she says wistfully, is the couch – and the ability it gave her to just flop at the end of the day.
More than 1600 homes were lost in the blazes that ripped through the Kinglake ranges and neighbouring towns. While some families in places such as Flowerdale are in donated portable homes, others are renting in Melbourne or living on-site in tents, vans or even old portable classrooms.
Ms Hill has refused to let herself stop and think too much: “I have kept myself busy and focused. I study as well. I haven’t had time for emotional things. If I stop and break down, what’s going to happen? Nothing.”
Cooking is difficult, but Ms Hill has chosen not to take the family for free meals down the road at Kinglake West.
There, locals complained following the cessation of emergency army meals several weeks after the fires, and the free evening meals were restarted.
“I think it’s time for people to start standing on their own two feet,” she says firmly.
“Our businesses need to be supported by us spending money here. All the free meals mean that money is not being put back into the infrastructure of our town. They are going broke, basically, with all the free food.”
Trish McCrae feels the same way. She is touched and grateful for all the help she has been offered by friends and colleagues, particularly the friends who have turned their tin shed into a home for her.
She now has plastered walls, a kit kitchen, a plush lounge suite and a soon-to-be fully plumbed and tiled bathroom. Her friend told her: “If you’re going to be here for a long time, you’re going to be comfortable.”
Ms McCrae is a disability support worker and is humbled to find herself on the receiving end of giving.
“It distresses me when I see people who have lost their homes and had so much offered to them who feel bitter. How can you still carry anger after what’s been done for us? The anger is at the fire …
“We have got to do for ourselves now and not be victims.”
Both she and Ms Hill are worried that new building regulations will force them into modern estate-type housing rather than the character-filled kind of homes they lost.
Ms Hill wants to start a mud-brick rebellion if she finds she can’t rebuild the way she wants. “I’m a fighter,” she says.
The town itself is a fighter, says Ms McCrae, who was delighted when the local paper recently dug up an old photograph of the town sign as it was after bushfires in the 1970s. It read, “Kinglake: The town too tough to die.”

First published in The Age.

Call to bury lines for fire-proof communications



POWER and phone lines should be underground so that essential services don’t fail during bushfires, according to a woman who was stranded in her burnt-out street for 24 hours after Black Saturday.
Vicki Law, of St Andrews, told the Bushfire Royal Commission that rebuilding must include underground placement of wires in areas that do not have mobile reception.
“Nobody knew we were alive till Sunday afternoon,” she later told The Age.
The media are banned from the commission’s community consultations.
Mrs Law and her husband sheltered with a neighbour after losing their home, sheds, garage, hens and cats, despite being prepared with two water pumps and a pool.
As with other communities, the failure of communications on the day was a strong theme. Mrs Law said the CFA internet site was telling her the fire was still in Wandin at the same time as her husband “began screaming at me to get inside because it was coming down the hill”.
Resident Quentin Addison argued that more spotter planes should have been in the sky tracking the fires’ speed and direction. Air coverage might have provided more up-to-date information to ABC radio, on which many relied, he said.
Angela Lake and Bruce Rodgerson said there should be an advice service with experts available to visit and assess homes for fire safety. Mr Rodgerson said CFA workers talked in general principles but were not permitted to advise on individual homes for fear of litigation if a house was later lost: “There should be indemnity for suitably qualified people to give fire-ready advice.”
David Baker-Gabb said fire-readiness in the bush had deteriorated because the Department of Sustainability and Environment had been “Jeffed” and its staff almost halved under the Kennett government. “The DSE removed from the field people who are sitting in offices now, or in rocking-chairs somewhere,” he said.
Mr Baker-Gabb said there needed to be more fuel reduction and much better maintenance of bush tracks.
Businessman Steve Roberston said he felt at the end of his tether. He saved his home but lost his shed, which contained $120,000 worth of uninsured phones and computers for his data services company.
He said a string of bureaucratic issues since the fires was preventing him from getting back on his feet. He had spent days burying dead wildlife and stock for absent neighbours, the coroner’s order stopped him clearing the wreckage on his block for weeks, and he cannot start using what government relief money he is entitled to because he cannot replace stock without somewhere to store it.
He said Melbourne Water had refused to help clean out his soot-filled dam, and he had been told he must pay $500 each for permits to rebuild his burnt-out shed and water tanks in exactly the same place.
“It’s never-ending. It’s just strangling me,” he said.First published in The Age.

Bushfire warning on road ‘ignored’



THE road where about 20 people died on Black Saturday, including Brian Naylor and his wife, had been labelled a bushfire deathtrap by residents for 26 years, but their concerns were ignored, locals said yesterday.
“The deaths, the fires, even the direction of the fires – they had all been prophesied,” said Chris Petreis of Coombs Road, Kinglake West. He said residents had been complaining since the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 that neglect by the council and other bodies had effectively turned the road into a seven-kilometre dead-end.
Mr Petreis said that on the day of the bushfires, flames came up the open northern end of Coombs Road, leaving residents like “rats in a tube”.
He said many residents would not even have tried to escape via the southern end of the road because 200metres of it was dangerously steep and so badly rutted with potholes it was considered by locals as a no-through road.
Mr Petreis said he had suggested to Whittlesea Council that he pay privately for grading and levelling of this part of Coombs Road, and of another exit track, Parkers Road, that he believed was poorly maintained. “I was told that if I touched the road I would be fined,” he said.
Fellow Coombs Road resident Alexandra Peters has a sheaf of documents given to her by the former owner of her property, a Mr W. Williams, and by Coombs Road residents Steve and Carol Wills, detailing alarm over the effective closure of that end of the road.
In 2003 the Willses wrote to the fire officer at Whittlesea Council warning: “The residents of southern Coombs Road have real concerns that should a bushfire strike this area there will be many families trapped on the top of the Coombs Road ridge, unable to escape to safety simply because the roads are in such poor repair.”
In another letter they said: “The residents of Coombs Road are concerned that should fire come from the north, we will be trapped on the hill with no safe means of escape. The poor state of these two roads will hamper access by fire crews.”
In 2000 Mr Williams had written to the council warning of the need to clear growth and of the poor condition of surfaces on southern Coombs Road and Gingles Road: “I request you to rectify all three hazards before the loss of life (not after). In this respect I have ensured the safe-keeping of this correspondence for use at any inquiry or the DPP” (the Director of Public Prosecutions).”
Twelve days later, he wrote to the council, “I am fascinated by the reply to my letter … and to hear that life and death are a matter of priority determined by a committee of the council, and the fact that Coombs Road, which has become all but impassable, is deemed adequate. I feel sure that it will not be so considered by a coronial inquiry or the DPP.”
Mr Williams had first started the letter campaign, in which he also appealed unsuccessfully to the Ombudsman, after the Ash Wednesday fires. He maintained that the southern end of Coombs Road was previously a through road that wound gently down the hill. He said parts of this old road were still visible on land that had since been fenced in by Melbourne Water.
After this, he wrote, Coombs Road was re-routed to go straight down a 700-metre section of steep slope. Mr Williams said that section of road was then damaged by army trucks in 2001 and not repaired.
But in 2004, the council wrote to Mr Williams insisting: “This section of road is a fire access track … The track was constructed purely for access by firefighting vehicles in the event of a fire in the area.”
Whittlesea Council was contacted late yesterday but was unable to gather the information needed for a detailed response. City of Whittlesea chief executive David Turnbull said the council was happy to consult residents and the CFA over fire-safety issues and would be happy to pass on concerns to any other relevant authorities.
Ms Peters and Mr Petreis said they had been told by the council that the track is to be permanently closed. Ms Peters said the council had first told her that section of track was privately owned and later told her it belonged to Melbourne Water. But VicRoads told her it was marked as a through road and was therefore the council’s responsibility, she said.
Mr Petreis said he had been furious to learn of the plan to entirely close that section off. He said that on the night of the fires he and Ms Peters escaped by risking their lives and their car down that dangerous stretch of road, because it led away from the firefront. All other roads led back into the fire. “It was the only way out,” he said.
He said the underside of his car was irreparably damaged. He saw cars abandoned at the southern end of the rough patch of road.
Mr Petreis said he would not continue to live in Coombs Road if the end of the road was permanently blocked because it would be too dangerous.
He said that he attended yesterday’s consultation by the Bushfires Royal Commission in Kinglake West but did not raise this issue because it did not fit the questions they were permitted to discuss. “In our case, nothing will work unless they give us another means of escape.”
Mr Petreis and Ms Peters were infuriated to see that a good-quality track was created on Melbourne Water land within days of the bushfires. It runs parallel to and just 10 metres from the unmaintained section of Coombs Road but is fenced off from public access.
“It’s amazing how one organisation can do it and another can’t,” Ms Peters said.First published in The Age.

No chance to answer Kinglake questions, says firefighter

STEVE Bell was an unhappy customer. The bushfire royal commission at Kinglake yesterday allowed local people to raise questions – not all of them well-informed – but gave no one a chance to answer them, he said.
Mr Bell was angered by the tight format of the royal commission’s community consultation, which he said gave him no chance to air his suggestions for improvements or to explain what had happened on the day. Media are banned from the consultations.
“One lady was saying, ‘Why was our tanker in St Andrews?”‘ he reported.
Mr Bell, a CFA lieutenant, had led that tanker crew. “We went down to stop the bastard before it got here, and if we had’ve stopped it, none of this would have happened,” he said. “The question was raised but not answered. Our local community is still not wise as to why our tanker was taken off the mountain.”
Mr Bell said he would have told the commissioners that every fire tanker should have a satellite telephone. Communications collapsed at times on Black Saturday because the CFA radio was overloaded and mobile phone towers went down.
He criticised people at the meeting who claimed they had not been warned of the fire that devastated the small mountain town.
“There was 24 hours of warning that the weather conditions would be the worst since Ash Wednesday,” he said. “How much more do you bloody need?”
The people asking those questions had never turned up to bushfire education sessions run by the CFA, he said. “None of these people were in Community Fireguard meetings. We had two years of trying to drum it into them but they weren’t interested. Nobody bloody wanted to know about it.”
His claim of community complacency was backed by a 25-year member of the nearby Toolangi fire brigade, Jack Walhout, who said people in his area also failed to attend bushfire preparation sessions, even though his brigade had been warning for years that the heavily forested region might one day face an unstoppable fire.
“At the last meeting, we would have been lucky to have half a dozen people,” Mr Walhout said. “You would drag people by the nose to those meetings.”
Many of the 150 local residents who attended the two commission consultations yesterday thought they had been useful. One suggestion had been fire bunkers in which people could shelter, local councillor Peter Beales said. The room was split on this idea, as some feared bunkers could turn into death traps.
It had also been suggested that the council provide a mulching service to help with clearing undergrowth. “But that would be very expensive for a council that’s even worse off now with rates. We have to revalue (burnt blocks) at only land value and refund money.”
The meeting noted that informal communications often worked better during the fire and its immediate aftermath, said Mr Beales. “If people listened to (ABC radio station) 774, it was saying the fire was in Strathewen. By the time it said that, the fire was already here, and the damage was done.”
On the other hand, texting teens transmitted information fast, and many people first learned that the Beales were OK through his daughter’s Facebook site, Mr Beales said.
“The kids got out information a lot quicker than the adults could.”
Four thousand messages and drawings from well-wishers were yesterday unfurled on 100metres of paper in the circus marquee where Kinglake’s community meetings are held.
The project is the brainchild of fashion designer Maryjean Hunter and graphic designer Shekhar Kemat, who belong to a meditation group.
Mr Kemat said the group had gathered messages from people in shopping and entertainment centres to allow ordinary Victorians to transform their sorrow into something positive.
First published in The Age.