The article below appeared in The Age (a Melbourne newspaper) yesterday. It was sent to me by a Bond Girl down “under.” If you have the time to read it, its an incredible story. As they say in Australia, I don’t know “how I would go” in the same situation!
I now understand the word ‘firestorm’
Luke van den Berk is the caretaker of a 33-hectare Kinglake West property, owned by the Macedonian Church. When the firestorm hit, he was trapped in the house with his children — sons Aaron, 13 and Khyle, 12, and daughter Brodee, 16 — and his girlfriend, Lois MacDonald, 42. This is their story
THERE wasn’t much warning.
I’m on a good basis with the national park rangers … they are over the fence from me. Ranger Tony Fitzgerald was giving us updates on what was happening, but as we got our last update we could hear the fire coming up the ridge behind us. He went down the hill of the national park on one of the tourist roads and came back up and said the fires were 700 metres away. He said: “You can leave now if you want to. If you want to stay we will help you out if we can.”
We decided to stay in the house. Within three minutes the flames were 30 to 40 metres high. There were horizontal sparks and embers — the wind was just incredible. The word “firestorm” — I have a clear understanding of it now.
We were inside the house and the noise outside was incredible. Sparks and embers were bashing up against the roof and the windows, the fence had caught fire, the woodpile against the house caught fire.
Then the windows started exploding — it sounded like a 747 taking off. It was broad daylight but it went dark because there was so much smoke and stuff — it just went dark.
The house was on fire. I had three attempts at getting everyone out safely — they were all in the lounge room. I kept going outside to see if we could get a decent path out, but the radiant heat was the killer. The first two times I went out, the radiant heat just forced me back in the house.
At that point I knew I had to wait for that initial part of the storm to pass over. Unfortunately, it consumed the house while we were in it. I shut all the bedroom doors.
We lost two cats and five kittens — I had to shut the bedroom door and we listened to them die. We saved our little dog, Cougar. It was traumatic for the kids. I had to shut the door because the windows had exploded and the bedrooms were on fire.
I made my third attempt at going outside. The radiant heat had passed a little, and I just thought, “We have to get out.” I had buckets of water outside. I took them in and got sheets and towels, dipped them into the water and wrapped everyone up over their heads and their faces and told them we had to go.
When we were 100 metres from the house, the roof collapsed. That was one or two minutes after we got out.
We ran out into the street. There were flames everywhere. You just looked down the street and there was devastation. It was like the army came in and bombed the whole thing with napalm.
We were running down the street. Gas cylinders were exploding. A lot of the cylinders had safety features on them … apparently when a gas cylinder heats up, a valve releases and all the gas comes out of the cylinder, so there was lots of shhhh noises.
A lot of cars were exploding — it was like a war zone. We had to step over power lines, go under power lines, there were power poles falling over in front of us, trees coming down everywhere.
And the noise — all I can compare it to is the sound of a 747 taking off. We were running down the street and the radiant heat was getting at us. We had to keep moving. If you stood still you would have shrivelled.
We ran down the street for about a kilometre — there was just no one, no one to help. My girlfriend was going, “Where the hell are the fire brigade?” I said, “We are on our own, we have got to go.” I just had to keep them going, I said, “Keep going, keep going, faster.”
We got to one house about a kilometre away and there was someone there spraying water on it. We took refuge in their house. There was a lady inside. We were probably there for about 10 minutes.
I was popping in and out of the house because I was paranoid about what was going to happen. His pump stopped working and then his balcony caught fire and I just went back in and said, “We gotta go.” My girlfriend didn’t want to leave. I started swearing: “We have got to go f—ing now.” We got the kids and the dog and we left … we left those people there. Fortunately we caught up with them at the third house we got to — our final refuge.
We went to another house where a man was watering down his house. He had his son with him. He told us to get inside and we felt quite safe. He was outside running round, wetting it all down. Then another 10 minutes went past and he said, “I can’t save it — we’ve got to go.”
We had to go only 50 metres over the road to the third house. It was owned by a lady who was a CFA member and she had left the firefighting front to come home and save her home. She was really well set up. She had fire pumps.
The kids sheltered in the basement part of the house — they were very traumatised. My daughter was having an asthma attack at that point. We had no medication and we had to get her down low on the floor because it was all full of smoke under the house as well. I just had to talk her through it, telling her, “You have just got to calm down, you have to breathe through it slowly, just relax, we are safe now.”
When she was feeling a bit better I went out and helped the men. We were there for about half an hour until the bulk of the flames had left. Then we were just going around the house blacking out spot fires.
We stayed there for probably about an hour and then went to the local CFA and slept on the floor there for the night.
These fires were most likely set by people – arson. I heard on the news the other day that their Prime Minister (believe it was) stated that when (not if) they catch the folks who did this, they’ll consider it mass murder. I couldn’t agree more.
If you would like to donate to help specifically towards the Victoria Bush Fire, here is a link to the Red Cross’s appeal for the crisis.