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.