Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sunday driving

On Sunday Tony and I went for a drive through some of Victoria's bushfire ravaged landscape so we could gauge first-hand what happened out there. We headed to Kinglake - a horrendously affected town - via St Andrews.

We both had a strange sense of anticipation about the whole thing, not knowing what to expect. Much of that feeling was due to the huge media beat up, especially around the sense of loss and deep emotion throughout the scarred communities.

Just after St Andrews the impact of the fires hit us. Prior to that, we'd noticed some burnt bush here and there, especially as we drove through St Andrews, but not much. That is, until we came up over a rise and an endless landscape of black, burnt trees and bare dirt was before us. It was suddenly like being on a different planet.

Then the flattened houses started to appear. Just totally nuked. Perhaps the odd chimney, but nothing else. I didn't photograph them.

In amongst the remains of homes, there were burnt out cars, piles of flattened metal and bricks. Completely decimated homes and sheds. It was strange seeing what we'd heard so much about - a burnt down house between two that remained virtually untouched. There is no explanation, just a sense of sadness for the people dealing with the one that had gone. A bit further on, a melted road sign.

We arrived in Kinglake, but didn't stay long, just used the bathroom at the pub (the one featured on so much television footage), and read about the owners' experience saving their hotel, livelihood and lives. What a harrowing experience.

We didn't quite know what to do - whether to stay a while and have lunch or move on. We decided to move on.

From Kinglake we headed to Healesville. A bit past Kinglake the fire had missed much of that road, but there were sort of lines of burnt bush, where wind had swept it through, up over a hillside, with unburnt bush all around.

It was during that section of the drive I realised what made the worst of the firestorm areas so stark and desolate. Not only the blackened trees, but the lack of saplings and any form of undergrowth at all. No density in the bush, just trunks and bare earth. Quite strange.

Just out of Healesville we stopped by a couple of wineries and started chatting to the people there. The woman at Long Gully Estate said that they had no idea that the fire was on its way on that black Saturday. It was upon them before they could do much at all. She said the wind was so strong the fire was being pushed up the south side of the hills, then just skipping the north side - so all the south sides are burnt, but the north faces are untouched.

She's concerned it's another disaster waiting to happen next year if it's still as dry as it is now and there's fire again with the wind in a different direction. It could hit them all over again. Doesn't bear thinking about, really. But they're preparing already. Increasing the size of their water tanks, ensuring they're not reliant on grid electricity to run pumps or water.

At another winery we spoke to an owner, a lovely woman. They had lost 90 percent of their property to fire - vines, stock, tractors and other equipment. Thankfully they saved their house, their wine stock and the cellar door. I said "you're lucky you still have your livelihood". But it's not that rosy.

She explained: their vines are already reshooting, which they shouldn't be doing until later this year. That means they're all out of sync and there'll be a low yield next year, so not much wine to make. Then that wine has to sit for time in barrels before being bottled. It'll take two years for the vines to recover and bear at full capacity. She said it'd be four years before they had a worthy vintage to sell again, and they'd just have to survive in the meantime.

It was a strange day. I'm glad we went for that drive, but the reality of those walls of fire and darkness and smoke and fear and adrenalin still remain as surreal images from the television screen during that awful week of heat and wind in February.

All that remains is a moonscape with some touches of green where nature is healing. It's quite haunting.

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