Eyewitness accounts of the Australian bushfires

These first-hand accounts of the fires which almost inevitably occur when the temperature outside reaches 47 degrees C are from the Australian radio station ABC.

With the cool change that swept across the state late yesterday came a shift in direction of the wind, which then sent the fire eastwards towards Whittlesea then Kinglake and other sub-alpine communities, about 60 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. It grew alarmingly from a 4000-hectare blaze to one covering 30,000 hectares in just a few hours. At least 500 firefighters on 100 trucks battled the inferno. Mr Mitchell said last night that he was with about 200 residents holed up in the local hotel and fire vehicles could no longer get into the town. Thousands more residents in the region were sheltering wherever they could find cover as authorities warned them that the worst was to come overnight. Firefighter Kevin Davy earlier told of his horror as the ferocious Kinglake fire rushed over his crew’s truck while they worked to protect a house. “It swept up the hill in a second. BRENDAN TREMBATH: The wind is whipping up around you as you speak. MICHAEL VINCENT: The wind is still causing problems; it’s going at about 60 k/ph. The CFA have had had to put out a couple of spot fires this morning. They’ve still got 20 trucks in the area whizzing about, going to various spots to try and keep those fires at bay. They are threatening some properties, but it is nothing, nothing like Saturday where a wall of fire, some people describe, has swept through and destroyed swathes and swathes of houses. The people here are, I mean this community meeting – I was here overnight – there was a couple of hundred people who came to this community meeting and one moment, it was just heart breaking, there were two women, they looked at each other, they said, one of the them said, “Yeah, I’m here.” That really summed it up that people are still reuniting with their friends. Another guy who stayed overnight was Charles Exton, he’s a farmer. He’s lived here for 100 years, well no his family have been in the area for 100 years. He spent last night with nothing. He had his clothes on his back and his car and he’s been trying to organise water supplies to come in and out and he’s still helping, handing out sandwiches and the like. He spent last night basically with the clothes on this back and his 16-year-old son Bradley. CHARLES EXTON: We stayed out here and we slept in the ute, well we didn’t sleep, we tried to sleep, but there’s just too much on our minds and I’ve got about seven, eight a head of sheep that I had to worry about, and the cattle and the horses and went up the roads and there’s been no animal losses on my farm or anyone’s I know of at this stage. We drove back just praying for everyone at Kinglake. The fire came so quickly there was not time for everyone to evacuate, which is why people died on the roads, in their cars and in their houses. On the television lots of contact numbers are given out all day for people to call, but there are so many people affected it’s almost impossible to get through on the phone, so I had to drive to my local area’s relief centre to register and to let them know I was safe

Not far away in Kinglake, the dawn revealed another horrific scene – a jumbled collection of burnt-out cars lining the roads out of the doomed township. These cars were carrying the families who never made it out of the town. Some had crashed into each other in their panic to escape the inferno that had surrounded their town. Others had their only escape route blocked by fallen trees as the fiery apocalypse enveloped them. By the time rescuers reached these cars they were incinerated wrecks. Some had bodies in them. Others had been abandoned by their owners as the fires roared around them in a moment of unimaginable fear. Where are the men, women and children who were in these abandoned cars? Did they live? Did they die? Right now, no one knows. These same questions are being asked about dozens of missing people across Victoria today as the full horror of the worst day in the state’s history becomes apparent. The southeasterly change, about 3pm, instantly doomed dozens of lives. It blew the fires from their predicted paths faster than anyone expected, confounding firefighters and suddenly posing a deadly threat to farms and townships that had appeared safe. Firefronts exploded, racing up hills with inconceivable speed, swallowing all in their path. The most deadly were those closest to Melbourne, in the Kinglake and Wandong area, where people say sheer walls of flames surged towards the small communities. In Wandong, locals spoke of how black smoke in the distance suddenly morphed into flames that roared up through the grass paddocks on the outskirts of their town, exploding trees and creating a fireball. Chris Isbister lost his home and almost his life, being forced to hide under wet hessian blankets with his father and two mates as they watched the fire destroy hishome. “We thought this was it,” he said. Ali said a family friend in the town had told of being trapped in Kinglake on Saturday with no one allowed in or out. “There were spot fires everywhere, roads blocked, roads covered in fire,” she said. “A lady said she was driving, she could see the fire in front of her and she just turned around. As soon as she turned around the fire went straight across the road on the other side. She had to drive straight through the fire to get out. She got out.” Dr Harvey said the family was lucky to be alive – the only reason he and his wife Charo were not at home is because they were picking up Ali from the airport, and Victoria was in Melbourne – but they are devastated to have lost a pet dog and rabbit, a family photographs and other memories. “We had an acre and a third on top of the mountain, picturesque views,” he said. The road to Kinglake, Whittlesea Road, has been blocked off about 15km to 20km before the town after it was surrounded on all sides by fire on Saturday. Scores of Kinglake residents were parked on the side of the road, blocked from returning on Sunday afternoon to see if their homes survived.

Mr Mitchell said there was no-one to fight the fire because fire crews were already fighting other fires across the state. He was forced to leave his home to shelter at the local fire station. “The whole of Kinglake is ablaze, I live a couple of out of town, I heard explosions, by the time I got to the road there were fires everywhere,” he said.

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