Belfast Telegraph

Monday 31 August 2015

Smoke, ashes and grieving where once an Australian paradise stood

By Kathy Marks in Wandong, Victoria

Published 11/02/2009

A Whittlesea farm house destroyed by wildfires is seen in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Monday as they reached farther into the fire zone. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130. (AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
A Whittlesea farm house destroyed by wildfires is seen in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Monday as they reached farther into the fire zone. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130. (AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
Police inspect a farm house destroyed by wildfires in Kinglake, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130. (AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
A fire truck moves away from out of control flames from a bushfire in the Bunyip Sate Forest near the township of Tonimbuk, 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of Melbourne, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009. Walls of flame roared across southeastern Australia, razing scores of homes, forests and farmland in the sunburned country's worst wildfire disaster in a quarter century. (AP Photo) ** AUSTRALIA OUT **
Police inspect a farm house destroyed by wildfires in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Monday as they reached farther into the fire zone. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130.(AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
Jane Cameron, left, and Greg Annand explain how they survived a fire that destroyed their home, in background, at the community of Kinglake West, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
Police inspect Kinglake farm house destroyed by wildfires in Kingllake, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Monday as they reached farther into the fire zone. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130.(AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
A Whittlesea farm house destroyed by wildfires is seen in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Monday as they reached farther into the fire zone. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130. (AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
A car pulls a trailer full of goats, sheep and llamas away from the community of Kinglake West, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
A burnt out house and a car are seen at the township of King Lake, north east of Melbourne, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll from the country's worst fire disaster in a quarter-century reached 65 on Sunday. (AP Photo/Stringer) AUSTRALIA OUT
The remains of St. Andrew's church are scattered after it was destroyed by fire at the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
An excavator moves a burned out car from the road near the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
Men work to restore electricity at the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
A farm house destroyed by wildfires in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130.(AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
Destroyed homes are seen in this image taken from television in Marysville, north of Melbourne, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire town, officials discovered as they reached farther into the fire zone. (AP Photo/Channel Nine via APTN) ** AUSTRALIA OUT **
Destroyed homes are seen in this image taken from television in Marysville, north of Melbourne, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire town, officials discovered as they reached farther into the fire zone. (AP Photo/Channel Nine via APTN) ** AUSTRALIA OUT TV OUT**
Devastation is seen in this image taken from television in Marysville, north of Melbourne, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire town, officials discovered as they reached farther into the fire zone. (AP Photo/Channel Nine via APTN) ** AUSTRALIA OUT TV OUT **
Judy and Kevin Purtzel survey their property damaged by bushfires near Marysville, north of Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. The deadliest wildfires in Australia's history burned people in their homes and cars and wiped out entire towns, officials discovered Sunday as they reached farther into the fire zone. (AP Photo) ** AUSTRALIA OUT **
Sheep search for any patch of fresh grass left after fire raged through the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
A dead horse that was trapped by raging fires lays at the side of the road near the community of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, Australia Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Officials believe arson may be behind at least some of the more than 400 fires that tore a destructive path across a vast swath of southern Victoria state over the weekend.(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Pool)
Five years old Elana Watson reunites with her father in Whittlesea, Australia, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. Suspicions that the worst wildfires ever to strike Australia were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes Monday in towns incinerated by blazes, while investigators moving into the charred landscape discovered more bodies. The death toll stood at 130. (AP Photo/Trevor Pinder, POOL)
One wall stands above the rubble of a destroyed church at Kinglake northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 76 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A fire truck drives past a destroyed church at Kinglake north east of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 76 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A fire erupts in a pine tree plantation northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Firefighters work near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A fire destroys equipment at a pine tree plantation near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Fires burn near a home near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A ridgeline of burnt out homes lead to a house still standing near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Small acreage is burned out in Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A police helicopter surveys damage from fires northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Buildings and vehicles sit destroyed at Kinglake northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A house, top, is seen undamaged as three others lay destroyed in Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Burned out vehicles are stranded on a road after the occupants were stopped by flames in their efforts to escape fires northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Firefighters work northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Firefighters fill their truck with water from a dam northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Livestock are cornered in a burned out field northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Smoke haze filters through hills northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
This image provided by NASA shows a large plume of smoke spreading southward from a fire (outlined in red) that appears to be burning in a small area of forest west of Churchill in Victoria’s Gippsland region. The forest is dark green in contrast to the surrounding grass or cropland. Raging wildfires swept through southeastern Australia on Saturday Feb. 7, 2009 as gale force winds and scorching temperatures combined into a deadly inferno that killed at least 14 people, officials said. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite was captured on Jan. 30, 2009.(AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA, rendered Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009, shows a large plume of smoke spreading southward from a fire (outlined in red) that appears to be burning in a small area of forest west of Churchill in Victoria’s Gippsland region. Entire towns have been seared off the map by wildfires raging through southeastern Australia, burning people in their homes and cars in the deadliest blaze in the country's history. The number of dead Monday stood at 108, a grim toll that rose almost by the hour as officials reached further into the fire zone. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA shows a large plume of smoke spreading southward from a fire (outlined in red) that appears to be burning in a small area of forest west of Churchill in Victoria’s Gippsland region. The forest is dark green in contrast to the surrounding grass or cropland. Raging wildfires swept through southeastern Australia on Saturday Feb. 7, 2009 as gale force winds and scorching temperatures combined into a deadly inferno that killed at least 14 people, officials said. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite was captured on Jan. 30, 2009.(AP Photo/NASA)
Police car goes around a vehicle that has run into a fallen burnt tree near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 76 on Sunday, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A fire erupts in a pine tree plantation northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Buildings and vehicles sit destroyed at Kinglake northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A man overlooks fire damage at Kinglake north east of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A police officer surveys fire damage in Kinglake northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A house, top, is seen undamaged as three others lay destroyed in Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
A ridgeline of burnt out homes lead to a house still standing near Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Small acreage is burned out in Kinglake, northeast of Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009. Towering flames have razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84, making it the country's deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed in Saturday's inferno. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

High winds whistled through Wandong yesterday, whipping ash into the eyes of Draga Kovacic as she surveyed the blackened ruins of her home for the past 25 years. "Burnt, all burnt," she wept, tightly clutching her grandson. "We have lost everything. All I've got left is these clothes I'm wearing."

The small town nestled in bush north of Melbourne was one of the first places hit by the monstrous fires that roared across Victoria at the weekend. At least four people died in Wandong and many homes were reduced to charred hulks. Yesterday, the sickly-sweet smell of smoke hung in the air.



As the death toll from Australia's worst bushfires rose to 181, police were closing in on arsonists suspected of starting some of the blazes. They believe they know the identity of a man allegedly responsible for one of the biggest fires, and may release a photofit in coming days.

For Mrs Kovacic and her husband, Drago, such developments are academic. All that registers is the scale of their loss. The elderly couple, originally from Croatia, had built a sizeable house in Wandong, planting 200 fruit trees. They kept chickens. All that remains of their orchard is twisted black stumps. The chickens are gone.



After fleeing their home just in time, the couple returned to find it obliterated. "This was their whole life, their dream, everything they'd worked for," said their son, Vlado Kovacic. Drago, a neat man of 74, tapped his breast with his fist. "It hurts me here," he said. "My heart is breaking."



Down the road is a chaotic mess of rubble and broken glass, the remains of a once handsome dwelling. Inside, there is little to be seen: a fridge, television and sofa all lie burnt and smashed in the wreckage. The garden is littered with broken stone urns and angels; the fishpond is ankle-deep in ash. A garage door flaps uselessly on its hinges.



There are similar scenes in communities all over the disaster zone, which comprises 20 or so hamlets and townships dotted across a broad arc of forested and agricultural land. And everywhere there is evidence of the fury of the firestorm. The cinder-black landscape still smoulders in patches. The remains of kangaroos, incinerated in mid-escape, lay across the north-south highway. Metal road signs have become blobs on the pavement.



In the town of Whittlesea, where an emergency relief centre has been set up, bushfire victims exchange tales of survival and bereavement. As volunteers serve up continous cups of tea, the locals cling to each other and weep. Their minds are filled with images they wish they had never seen.



Roger Cook calls himself a working-class boy from Portsmouth. He has lived in Kinglake West, in the Upper Yarra Valley, for 20 years. His street, Pine Ridge Road, borders a national park. "That's what we love about it," he said. "You're in a little suburban street, but you've got lyre birds and wombats and beautiful bushland." There were 47 houses on Pine Ridge Road, and fire destroyed them all. Dozens of lives were lost in the Kinglake area. Mr Cook believes 21 people died in his street. He counts them off on his fingers. "There's a single mother with two kids, there's an old lady, there's a family with two young kids."



His own family left just in time. "A few more minutes, and we'd have been trapped," he said. Three men he knows stayed until houses around them were virtually exploding. By that time, their four-wheel drive was on fire, and their other car was so hot that the gearstick was melting. "One bloke had to sit in another's lap because the seats were melting, but they managed to drive it," said Mr Cook. "They were probably the last ones alive in the town. They said they heard screaming as they left."



Inside the volunteer fire service headquarters in Whittlesea, an exhausted John Holmes was gulping down dinner after a 12-hour shift. He had spent the day in Kinglake, which he called "Armageddon". "Everything there is grey and black," he said. "If it's still standing, it's black; if it's not, it's ash."



One of the most haunting sights, he recalled, was cattle that had been burnt as they sat in the fields. The inferno had roared through so swiftly, they had not even had time to get up. Another firefighter, David Tree, had rescued a koala he saw moving gingerly on scorched paws across the burnt countryside.



It stopped when it noticed him following, and he called out to his colleagues for water. "I unscrewed the bottle, tipped it up on his lips and he just took it naturally," Mr Tree said. "He kept reaching for the bottle, almost like a baby."



Source: Independent

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