March 2009

The Nation Reviewed

The road to Kinglake

By Richard Flanagan
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Life goes on after Black Saturday

“They call it fire freeze,” she said.

I looked up at the tree branches bowed and twig ends extended, the leaves forced horizontal as though a great gale is blowing. Yet the air was still. And the charred tree was dead, and has been dead since the apocalypse of Saturday.

Then, as the furnace breath of the fire roared through the trees, such was its ferocious heat that it sucked all moisture out of the branches and leaves, freezing them in this final position of life. And yet the leaves didn’t burn.

Four days later, as we climbed the road to Kinglake, the landscape appeared not so much incinerated – as might be expected – as irradiated. As though some death ray had passed through at incomprehensible speed, blobs and runs of aluminium knuckled the bitumen of the road leading into the town that was being described in the media as having vanished in the firestorm.

And yet not everything was dead. Fifty metres down the road from the burnt-out wreck of a dual cab was a green, living tree. Three white goats pocked a black paddock.

The town was still closed off to all bar residents, emergency services, forensic investigators and some media. To get there you drove up a range through a forest of charred trees rising like an endless nail bed, occasionally broken by yellow-coated CFA volunteers putting out smoking stumps, repairmen clearing roads of fallen trees, replacing power lines and poles, and a quickening rhythm of charred houses and burnt-out cars.

Nothing was as you might expect. Next to writhing twists of ash-white tin that were once homes were houses still standing, with large trees a few metres from their doorway. And at the heart of the destruction, the centre of Kinglake had somehow survived.

Here, the atmosphere of a country show seemed to prevail, with what seemed excessive activity: sprawling parking, container shopfronts and barbeques, the endlessly dividing and reforming circles of people. But it was not a country show.

The smell of onions and burgers frying threw a fatty blanket over the pungent ash of the air, but only if you stood close. The container offices housed government agencies, insurers, emergency services. The people were CFA volunteers, emergency workers, families, old friends near and distant. Survivors, mostly. Their talk was not the squeals and screams of the fairground, but the low murmur of something else. And they moved slowly, as if in wonderment.

“Everyone,” said one woman, “knows someone who is dead.”

The small run of shops in the town centre had opened their doors and beneath the verandahs were palettes of potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, cordials and signs saying, “FREE FOOD. TAKE WHAT YOU NEED.”

Not everyone did. A woman tells me that some whose homes were not destroyed feel they shouldn’t help themselves. Everyone feels something, but no one can say what it is, and all seem marked by some odd tenderness of being.

People greeted each other not cursorily, nor quickly, but in what seemed slow awe. An emotion as large and incomprehensible as the ash-strewn world itself seemed to engulf them. People stopped, looked at one another, held each other in – what? – gratitude, relief, grief, love? Whatever it was, if you came from elsewhere it felt wrong to try and pretend you could enter it.

The media were looking for the tragic death story, the heroic survival story, something that might do some justice to that terrible hushed emotion that seemed to swallow up everything. They ringed one couple telling their dramatic story of escape, of how they passed cars already burnt out with bodies inside but they did not want to talk about it.

The journos did it because it was their job and they were trying to do their job well, and they did it because they needed a single story that might speak of all these other things: the luck, the serendipity of life and death, the feeling of a world no longer controllable. But no story would do.

“It’s the same story,” whispered a frustrated TV-news reporter to his cameraman. “We’ve had all this already.” And maybe it was and maybe they had. But no story, no detail, no utterance summed up any of it.

The woman who smiled at me so beautifully, who held my forearm as though I was the one in need of solace, comfort, said, “I am all right. You should not talk to me. I feel so -”

She halted, as though the next word were somehow wrong to say.

“Guilty,” she then said. She clipped the end of the word. “We survived,” she said. “We’re all right,” she continued more quickly. “There are others over there you should talk to.” She pointed down an alley where clothes were being distributed. Her hand was shaking on my forearm. She forced a smile, excused herself and walked away.

There was already a lot of expert opinion in the media on why the fires happened. That it was the fault of greenies, or people who had left too late or had no fire plan. But in Kinglake there seemed few certainties. Why some had died was as unexplainable as why others had lived. Other than luck, which was the word that came up again and again.

The man who had been fighting a fire away from the town on Saturday told me how he did not know if his wife was safe until the day after, the three plastic cups of instant coffee he held beginning to tremble as he spoke.

“That’s her,” he said, motioning with a bowing head over my shoulder.

“We were lucky,” he said. And he walked over to two women, and one put her arms around his neck and burst into tears and could not stop crying, as though they were seeing each other again for the first time after that dreadful Saturday night.

Everyone knew someone who had lost someone, and everyone had a story, and every story was the tip of something huge and beyond any telling or hearing. It all made as little sense as the way day had turned to night, the roar beyond description as the fire approached, the tar melting, the trees falling and cars smashing, the people panicking, the people even more puzzlingly simply watching, the sight of the dead; the inexplicable, even ridiculous, way you might live.

There was the couple who ran across the road and took shelter in the Kinglake West milk bar – a brick building – as the fire barrelled down the main road toward them, only to look down in their relief and see gas bottles. They turned, ran back across the road to their house, and just as they made it to the other side the bottles exploded, blowing out the back of the shop.

Everyone had a story, even those who were not there, like the man who said he’d had a blue with his wife. She’d left on the Friday, and he decided midday Saturday to go down to Melbourne to work for the day. Now they were alive, reunited, and aware of the irony that had allowed this to be so.

“I was a street kid for most of my life,” said another man. “Moved here four years ago and it’s the best place I’ve ever lived. I felt part of a community, first time ever, such a good place. You know what I mean?”

I saw a moment of fire freeze, one world trapped in death, another yet to start.

All around us were people frying onions and hamburgers and sorting clothes, people ash-smeared and fire-exhausted, people still to grieve and people unable to be grateful, people reaching out to each other, people looking out for one another and discovering the extraordinary in themselves.

“Such a good place,” he said again. “You know?”

Beyond us the police teams were turning over tin, turning up more and more dead, yet everywhere I looked I saw only the living helping the living, people holding people, people giving to people. At the end of an era of greed, at a time when all around are crises beyond understanding and seemingly without end, here, in the heart of our apocalypse, I had not been ready for the shock of such goodness.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan is the author of The Living Sea of Waking DreamsThe Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. His new book, Question 7, will be published in November.

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