Fire in the house!

In her new book, Karen Kissane tells how the Black Saturday fires changed forever not only the lives of those involved, but the way Australians see the bush.

IT WAS never the Sparkes’ plan to have Bron and the kids stay for a fire. A pregnant Bron had evacuated with Lola in 2006, and they were prepared to leg it this time, too. Now, Dominic was two and his big sister, Lola, 4. Bron had packed a few things, just in case. They were keeping an eye on the Kilmore fire via the CFA website but saw no reason to worry yet.
It had started more than 40 kilometres away and seemed to be running directly south, in a line that would bypass them, though Bron was uneasy at the speed it seemed to be travelling. Sometime in the late afternoon they walked halfway down their Kinglake block. It overlooks Strathewen and has views all the way to the city. They wanted to see what was happening with the Kilmore fire but they saw a puff of smoke much closer to home.
“Where is that?” Bron asked Shane. She thought it might be further away, in the little township of Doreen, but it was Strathewen.
Evacuation now seemed out of the question. The Kilmore fire was in the Mount Disappointment forest catchment to the west, which meant they wouldn’t feel safe taking the main road west out of Kinglake. The eastern road out, via St Andrews, was narrow and winding and would be a death trap if anyone should happen to crash and block it. They felt encircled by danger.
The official bushfire advice promoted by the CFA under the policy colloquially known as Stay or Go told them not to get into a car at the last minute, and the spot fire in Strathewen made this the last minute. It was not their choice, but they would have to stay and defend with their children.
Shane began jogging towards the house. Then the situation hit him and he began to run. Inside, he tried to call 000 and his adult son, whose girlfriend lives in Strathewen. He couldn’t get through to either number.
Bron ran back to the house with the children and rang her parents to let them know fire was in the area. “We’re at home. There’s a fire coming. We’ll be OK,” she reassured them. She didn’t tell them she loved them but that was the real reason for her call. She got herself into work overalls, heavy-duty navy cotton, and dressed the children in the protective clothing she had packed months ago in the family’s “fire box”: jeans, long-sleeved tops, leather boots. She had to squeeze Dom’s soft little feet into boots he had outgrown last winter. Protection was more important now.
Bron wasn’t panicked but she was worried. She remembered she had asked Shane to put up a spare piece of cement sheeting on the window of the spare bedroom, which faced west. They were renovating and he’d wanted to use it to fill a gap underneath one of the eaves. He’d been irritated by the way his wife and children had constantly seemed to get in the way of him getting that small job done. Now it was Bron who would be annoyed if it hadn’t been put up over that window. She thought, “If he hasn’t done it, I’ll bloody do it myself.”
He’d done it.
Bron began filling the bath but Shane told her to empty it so the run-off would fill the 44-gallon grey-water tank outside. The bath was half-empty when the electricity died, and he realised they would not be able to refill it. Shane cursed himself for a fool: “I’ve put the water we needed inside, outside. What have I done?” It was a bad moment but there was nothing to be done about it.
Shane knew these were their last few minutes of calm before the storm. Even the wind had dropped. Lola had picked up on the tension and was running around in anxious circles. “I don’t want it to be dark,” she cried out. They took the children to the door briefly and they all looked out at the orange glow in the sky. They could hear a distant rumble.
Shane had listened to the radio obsessively during the 2006 fires. One piece of advice had stuck with him: “Whatever you do, don’t let the fire frighten you. If you are caught in a fire, the noise will be sensational and terrifying and don’t let it get to you.” He warned the children, “It’s going to get louder and louder.”
Until now Bron had been running on formal advice, such as the dot points in safety brochures and the fire education she had received. As she looked at her small children and wondered how to prepare them for what she knew would be a horrifying ordeal, it was not dot points that came to her but a story. She remembered a novel by Bryce Courtenay, Four Fires, in which a young volunteer firefighter turns up at a farmhouse when a fire is approaching to find a frightened mother with her child. He gets them woollen blankets and explains in clear, simple terms what will happen.
Bron drew a breath.
“We’re going to play wet tents in the lounge room,” she told the children. “I’m going to put wet blankets over the top of you. It’s going to be very noisy, very dark and very scary, but you need to stay under the blankets and you’ll be OK. Just do as I say.”
By now Lola was frightened. She had fallen silent. Bron tried to tie wet towels over their heads but they ripped them off. They didn’t like a wet blanket over them either because it was too heavy. In desperation Bron tried Lola’s old cot blanket. It was two metres long and made of soft cream wool edged with satin ribbon. She put a rug under them on the floor and put the wet baby blanket over the three of them, singing nursery rhymes to help make it a game and to keep her voice calm. The distant thunder rolled closer to them. Shane stayed on lookout, pacing back and forth from one window to the other.
It went black; darker than night. There was a roar and bangs: loud, explosive, repetitive bangs, like a 44-gallon drum being dropped and rolled over bumps. Shane looked out the back door and saw trees at the bottom of the block catching fire. The flames were at least as tall as him, and he was nearly 180 centimetres. He figured the wall of 30-metre eucalypts at the bottom of the driveway would explode. Then small bushes close to the house caught alight. He thought, “We’re in the middle of a fire now. This is dead-set bushfire. It’s not going to miss us.” There was a sound as if a bomb had been dropped in the backyard, ker-boom! The house shook as if it had been hit, and the windows glowed orange with flames and glowing firebrands. They could hardly hear each other’s screams over the howl of the hurricane outside.
Shane dashed around the front and saw the garden and the veranda flickering with flames.
He knew he should check what was happening in the pitched roof of their Californian bungalow. He climbed through the manhole to find embers flying in through a slotted air vent and smouldering on the fibreglass insulation.
Again he cursed himself, this time for not having closed the vent.
The fire was still roaring and sparks showered through the gaps of the capping on the corrugated iron roof, as if a dozen angle-grinders were at work. Up in the roof, Shane gagged on thick black smoke heavy with chemical fumes. He got out and closed the manhole, telling himself, “I’ll put that fire out later.”
The frenetic Shane, pumped with adrenalin, darted into the kitchen and saw that flames had come in through gaps left by the renovation. A nylon parachute they had been using as a partition was alight. He tore it down and shouted, “Fire in the house! Fire in the house!”
One kitchen window pane fell out with a crack. As if the sudden change in air pressure was sucking glass out of its frames, every other window followed, the bangs of the initial cracking followed by smashes as the glass hit the floor. Bron had put the children in the centre of the lounge room to keep them as far from the windows as possible but the kitchen opened on to the lounge — they were effectively in the same room as the tongues of flame racing up curtains and licking at the walls trying to get a grip. Within seconds the kitchen was well and truly on fire.
The children couldn’t see the flames because their heads were covered by the blanket. Bron and Shane grabbed them and retreated to their last place of refuge: the spare bedroom with the cement sheeting across the window. As they slammed the door behind them Shane began to panic. He said, “This is not saving the house. There is no CFA going to help us. We’re screwed!”
Terror was like a medicine ball that they passed between them. While one was holding it, the other could function normally.
Now Shane had the medicine ball and Bron was cool and commanding. The room was well stocked with coats. “Get that one and put it at the bottom of the door,” she ordered. “We’ve got to seal it as much as possible.”
He hadn’t yet accepted that they were about to lose everything. He tried to open the door slightly to peek out and assess whether they would be able to escape through the front of the house but Bron, terrified that any crack would let in smoke or flames, screamed, “Don’t open the door!”
Bron lay on the floor with the children, a floor rug underneath them and the baby blanket over their heads. The blanket seemed to filter the air and they breathed more easily under it but Bron was anxious about Dom.
He was hysterical with fear, kicking and clawing and screaming. She feared he would break away from her into the darkness or that he would suffer from smoke inhalation because the screaming meant he was gulping toxic air. The smoke blinded him and the noise deafened him so he couldn’t see or hear his mother. He was lost in the dark, dreadful terror of the small child who had no words for this. She lay on top of him to keep him low. He screamed and writhed beneath her. Lola had moved beyond panic. She sat next to her mother, utterly still and silent. Shane was on all fours nearby.
He knew that the higher he was, the worse the air would be, and that he should stand only when he needed to. He took only shallow breaths and tried desperately to think of options: “How the hell are we going to get out of this?”
He realised this front was not going to pass in 10 minutes. It was still roaring as loudly as ever outside. This bushfire was more ferocious than anything he had been led to expect. It had been only five or six minutes from the time they realised they were in the middle of the fire to finding themselves cowering in the last safe room. A timber door lay between them and the flames devouring the lounge room and kitchen. A cement sheet on the window was the only thing protecting them from the firestorm outside.
On one level Shane felt fine: his body was working, he could stand up, he could breathe. He couldn’t think of what to do because the house was going up but the fire was still raging outside. He didn’t know it then, but he was waiting for a cue.
He needed something to prod him into action.
Bron could feel the floorboards under her legs getting hotter and knew the fire was under the house. Fire was now above them, below them and on all sides. “How can my children be a part of this?” she thought despairingly. “How can we be here? There’s nowhere to go. Beam us out of here!”
Lying there sheltering her children, she gave up. “We’re going to die of smoke inhalation,” she said flatly. For her, it was a simple statement of fact.
For Shane, this was his cue. He had no idea, as he would put it later, that “Bron was past the use-by date”. Her pointing out the brutal truth pierced his passivity, and his mind leapt into action. He realised three things in quick succession: that they had to get out of the house or they would die; that this was the point of no return; and that he needed to find out what they would be faced with outside.
In slow motion, heavily, reluctantly, he felt the window that was covered by the cement sheet: the glass was painfully
hot to the touch. He slowly opened it.
“This is death that we’re facing,” he
thought. “I wonder how much it’s going to hurt?” He said to Bron, “We’ll go outside.”
“Where?” she asked.
He envisaged what lay outside that window. A narrow concrete path led 10 metres to two large galvanised water tanks, one with 19,000 litres of water and the other with 11,300 litres. He decided they would open the valves and flood the path, which was 15 centimetres below the grass line. “We’ll lay down on the concrete path and cover ourselves with the blanket,” he said.
He grabbed the still-screaming Dom and gripped him between his legs as he punched out the cement sheet. Then, with his son in his arms, he vaulted through the window. He realised the half-metre space between the water tanks was a better option. The second he got there, he turned on the tap and soaked the child. Everything around them was alight except the water tanks.
He turned and was aghast to see there was no one behind him. He pushed Dom into mud and ran to the window, yelling, “Where the f— are you?”
“I don’t have Lola!” Bron shouted from inside the house. Even though the window was open, the smoke still left it impenetrably dark in there. She couldn’t touch or see her daughter, and Bron wasn’t going anywhere until she had Lola. She felt around and finally reached the frozen girl. Bron had trouble putting the blanket over her daughter’s head because she was trying to hold Lola with one hand and wrestle with the blanket with her other.
While she was doing that she took in a choking lungful of smoke. Coughing and spluttering, she realised, “If that happens again, I’ll pass out.” She remembered the safety instructions on aeroplanes that warn parents to fix their own oxygen masks first so they can save their children. It was hard, knowing that Lola would be taking in the toxins, but Bron put the blanket over her own head and got to the window with her daughter. A little hand reached out to Shane.
The four of them sheltered between the two tanks in a space just large enough for Bron to crouch with her children held tight against her, still under the baby blanket. On one side of the tanks the house was completely ablaze. On the other side of the tanks, two metres from where they were huddled, two blackwood trees were on fire. A ute on the nearby road had gone up and embers whizzed through the air. Shane stood with his back to the radiant heat of the house and used a hose to pour water over himself and his wife and children.
Tiny coals burned through his overalls and left him with cigarette-like burns on his backside. Bron took water into her mouth and put it into Dom’s mouth like a mother bird with a fragile chick. At one point Shane looked back at their home and said, “Kids, say goodbye to the house.”
They obediently peeked out from under the baby blanket. The roof was on and the frame was standing, so it was still recognisable as the shape of a house but the walls and the interiors had gone. The children took in the ball of flame. “Goodbye,” they said.
They had been there for nearly an hour when Shane saw a patch of blue sky. It reminded him of the moments of heavenly radiance in old Charlton Heston movies. He felt a burst of relief. “Shit, we’ve made it! Unless we do something really stupid or something terrible happens, we’ve made it, we’re out of this.” Shane looked over at the now incinerated ute that had been abandoned on the road and saw his own red van nearby with parking lights on and the keys in the ignition, just as he had left it in case a quick getaway was needed. He went over to it and made another find: his video camera was undamaged on the seat. He talked all the way back to his family as he filmed:
“Well, folks, here we are, I can’t believe what’s happened. Believe it or not, the goddamn Volkswagen’s made it, the Volkswagen’s made it. Here’s our front door . . . here’s our supply shed . . . here’s the only thing that matters . . . We survived!”
He swings the lens around to his wife and children crouching between the big metal tanks. The film shows Bron beaming with relief under the blanket, now grey with smoke and flecked with embers. On her lap is Lola, her face hidden by sodden strands of hair. Way back under the blanket, barely visible, is Dom. His baby-big head hangs forward with shock and exhaustion like a flower that is too heavy for its stalk. The blanket drapes over the three of them like a veil. It is a Black Saturday Madonna and children, covered with ash and framed by corrugated iron.
This is an edited extract from Worst of Days, Inside the Black Saturday Firestorm, by Karen Kissane (Hachette), $35