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.