Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Karen Kissane, smh


PAUL HENDRIE, captain of the Kinglake Country Fire Authority, 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 fire trucks 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 it.

That morning, Mr Hendrie went to the CFA station at the end of the main street. He and his team listened to the radio and scanner and used the internet to map nearby fires.

They checked that the town's two water tankers were ready to roll. Then they waited, as the calls became more urgent and the maydays began.

In the afternoon they received a call for help from the town of St Andrews, about 15 kilometres down the mountain. Mr Hendrie sent down one of Kinglake's tankers.

"Then we got another call. And against my better judgment we sent the second tanker out, which meant there was nothing on the mountain. There were no tankers on the mountain.

"The plan was that tankers would stay on the mountain but when you have got a fire, you go. 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 hotted up; the fire had jumped a road and right into St Andrews. Mr Hendrie knew some Kinglake people were fleeing in that direction. He called police to ask for a blockade but they were already stretched too tight.

He jumped in a brigade car with a white-knuckled colleague and they sped down the St Andrews road, watching out for spot fires, seeing embers burning in the leaves along its edges. As he passed cars going down he shouted at them: "Get back up! Just go, go, go!"

He reached a man fleeing back to Kinglake who told him he only got out of St Andrews just 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 and a horse trailer to block the start of the St Andrews road.

There were cars everywhere. People were asking him where they should go. He knew they couldn't go to Kinglake West in one direction and St Andrews in the other. "What could I do? How could I advise them where to go?"

Then the wind changed and the flames moved up the mountain. 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 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 of people 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.

"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. "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.

Ambulances could not get up the mountain to rescue those needing hospital care. But a CFA strike team and SES crews with bulldozers cleared a path and local police ferried the injured in their patrol cars.

Next Mr Hendrie had to deal with the burning houses that were still alight. "It was sort of like I went through two days in one day. When the fire came over there was darkness and then it came light again." 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, he says: "I'm not sure that I saved them. I'm sure it was luck that we didn't have a massive ember attack in this street."

This fire took houses that should not have been vulnerable and had deluge sprinkler systems. It took a church and a kindergarten that were newly rebuilt after arson attacks a few years ago.

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 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. Like many others in the Kinglake team, he had to fight fires in one place knowing that his family was under attack somewhere else.

But the stress has left its mark on him. He will stick with the CFA but seems a little relieved that his stint as captain finishes in June.

He feels he has done his bit.