Victorian Bushfires Update 9/2/2009

To: "'Birding Aus'" <>
Subject: Victorian Bushfires Update 9/2/2009
From: "Paul Dodd" <>
Date: Mon, 9 Feb 2009 23:46:46 +1100
A long report today. Skip to the end for birding-related comments.


Today I visited more of the bushfire affected area. With my sister and her
partner we tried to go back to the site of their burned-out house. We first
drove to St Andrews and I can verify that the pub is still there. There is a
police check-point on Main Road, St Andrews - at the site of the market.
Only locals are permitted past the checkpoint - the police require a drivers
licence with a valid address in St Andrews before allowing people past.
There is a second checkpoint at the Mittons Bridge road - no one is
permitted beyond that except for emergency services vehicles. Unfortunately
my sister's house is several kilometres to the north of that intersection,
so we could not get in any further. There are several reasons for the
roadblock - firstly because the police have declared the ENTIRE
fire-affected area to be a crime zone (more on this later); secondly, the
roads have not been adequately cleared; thirdly, the fires are actually
still going (more on this later too).


The first thing that is noticeable on approaching the Mittons Bridge
roadblock is that this is the closest point that the fire came to St Andrews
- about 1.5km from the pub. The hills and paddocks beyond Mittons Bridge
Road are completely blackened. Since we couldn't get through the roadblock
we drove along Mittons Bridge Road - which ultimately winds its way back to
Hurstbridge. From Mittons Bridge Road, you get a good view of the land to
the north of St Andrews - which is the fire-affected area. A quick look
shows the path of the fire - it clearly followed the ridge line which
extends from Kilmore and Heathcote north west of here, all the way to Yarra
Glen south east of this location. Directly in the path of the fire were the
townships of Kinglake West, Pheasant Creek, Kinglake Central, Kinglake,
Strathewen and St Andrews. From Mittons Bridge Road, looking north it is
possible to see the power-line easement, and you can also see Bald Spur
Road, Jackson Road, School Ridge Road, Bowden Spur Road, Eagles Nest Road
and the hamlet of Strathewen - all of which will long be remembered in this
area as sites of complete (and I mean 100%) destruction.


The hills are blackened - and I now understand what people mean by
"matchsticks". At this distance, the trees look like little matchsticks
stuck into the ground. There is no foliage or green left at all. The area
reeks of smoke. At various spots along the way we stopped and spoke with
residents. Immediately to the north of Mittons Bridge Road every second
house is still standing (as this was the southern extent of the fire). The
houses that burned look like they have simply melted. Grass in the paddocks
is burned, but you can clearly see where the wind changed and the fire
reversed on itself. There is still stock in the paddocks, grazing on the
small remnant patches of unburned grass. There is also dead stock in the
burned areas. Trees along the roadside are still smoking. All along the
hills in the distance you can see smoke and what looks like the occasional
flame - probably flare-up from smouldering trees. I guess no one is
particularly worried about this because even if the tree burst into flames
again, there is nothing left around to burn.


Every person I spoke to said the same thing. They had absolutely no warning
of impending disaster. The fire moved so quickly that they had no chance to
save anything - it was pure luck that some houses survived and some burned
(this on the southern extremity of the fire). People that had escaped from
Strathewen said that NOTHING was left. I notice that this has been picked up
on by the online news today - The Age ( has an article on
this hamlet - showing nothing left. From Mittons Bridge Road, it is not
possible to see detail, but the location of that hamlet is right in the
middle of the blackened area. The description of the fire that almost
everyone used was "firestorm". People (including my sister's partner)
described huge fireballs preceding the fire front. They also described the
white-hot sparks that resulted from these fireballs that flew hundreds of
metres in front of the fire front igniting the ground. Everyone mentioned
the incredible noise that accompanies the passing of the fire. People that
had witnessed it also described the incredible heat from the fire front.


I spoke to people that survived in Ninks Road (where Danny Roger's house
was). One couple in a house that survived described seeing their neighbour's
house literally explode. They were sure their neighbours were dead. The
house on the other side also burned to the ground. Once the fire had passed
they came out to check the damage and to see what happened their neighbours.
After seeing the ruins of their neighbour's house they burst into tears...
But then something amazing happened. Two figures rose from the creek -
covered in mud - it was their neighbours. But then another two figures rose
from the creek a little further along - their neighbours from the other
side, carrying their one-year-old child. Everyone has stories of the day the
fires came.


I also visited Whittlesea today (helping Ruth deliver a replacement 4WD to
the Parks Victoria office). Whittlesea is the current control centre for
these fires. It is quite amazing that normal life goes on all around - the
freeway had peak hour traffic, people are going to work. It is only once you
get to this location that you can see that all is not quite right. From
Whittlesea you can see the smoke pouring from the hills. There are clearly
hot-spots because the smoke is thicker. It is really important to note that
the Kinglake fires are NOT extingushed yet - this is still very much an
active bushfire. CFA crews were heading out to the fire front, police were
blocking roads and controlling traffic, Parks Victoria staff were heading
out to map the fire front. In the front yard of the head ranger's house is a
Toyota Landcruiser that has been exposed to radiant heat - the rear bumper,
tail lights, and all plastic has melted - the oven-baked paint has blistered
- inside the vehicle everything is intact. The crew survived - but it goes
to show how hot the fire must get for vehicles to spontaneously burst into



I was terribly saddened by the loss of Dr Richard Zann and his wife and
daughter - whilst I didn't know him personally, I knew of his work and his
incredibly valuable contribution to birds and bird conservation. He lived in
Bald Spur Road which was one of the hardest hit areas in this region. Also
killed in that road was the Australian actor Reg Evans (of Mad Max fame,
amongst other appearances) and his partner. Reg was a well-known face at the
St Andrews market, and was renowned for his passion for local theatre.
Apparently Reg died trying to flee the fire. From what I understand so many
people died in that road attempting to do the same.


On a brighter note, past Director of Birds Australia, David Baker-Gabb and
Kate Fitzherbert, who live in St Andrews, have survived (although I believe
with loss of their house).


I believe that Yellingbo is undamaged. Apparently it is covered in ash, but
otherwise unharmed. Tonimbuk (another location for the endangered Helmeted
Honeyeater) is under threat however - the Bunyip bushfire, which is
currently 25,000ha in size is burning 5km to the north, in basically
inaccessible forest. Fortunately the threat is not considered great at the
moment. Bunyip State Park is currently closed to the public.


I mentioned earlier that the police have declared the entire fire-affected
area to be a crime zone. Unfortunately this means that NO ONE is allowed
into the area - and once someone has left, they cannot return (which is
causing all sorts of problems, apparently). Practically what this means is
that no wildlife carers can enter the area to look for injured wildlife. No
vets can enter the area to destroy badly injured stock or wildlife. It is
unclear when the area will be opened, but probably not for another day or
two, which will mean that it is too late for much wildlife.


Fires are currently threatening Yackandandah and Beechworth, but there is no
immediate threat to the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park (and that park
remains open). There is a fire burning at Wilsons Promontory 2km to the
north of Sealers Cove. The Wilsons Promontory National Park is closed to the
public. All other fire-affected National and State Parks are closed to the


Paul Dodd

Docklands, Victoria




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