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