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.