Bree T's Reviews > Kinglake-350

Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland
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Sep 30, 11

bookshelves: australian, library-reads, non-fiction
Read from September 08 to 10, 2011

On the 7th February 2009, a combination of factors combined to create a disaster in country Victoria, Australia. Days and days of soaring temperatures (days peaking over 40, nights peaking around 30), two combined weather pressure systems, a 12 year drought creating the driest, most volatile conditions all culminated in the worst bushfire disaster on record. What made this fire so different was the enormous front when a cool change blew through in the afternoon and turned the fires back on themselves.

There were townships that were almost obliterated – Kinglake and several small surrounding communities, Whittlesea, Maryville all experienced catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure. The fire came so swiftly and was so intense that most people didn’t stand a chance if they chose to stay and defend their properties. Even those that had excellent fire plans and executed them to the letter still perished, utterly powerless against the strength and heat of these fires. People who left it too late were incinerated in their cars as the fires swept across roads leading out of the towns.

Adrian Hyland is an Australian crime author, who has written such books as Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road (neither of which I’ve read yet) who makes his home in St Andrews, a tiny town just near Kinglake. Kinglake-350 is the story of that fateful day etched into Victoria’s history that has come to be known as Black Saturday, mostly from the point of view of Roger Wood, the one police officer on duty that day in Kinglake. We follow Wood from the time he awakes in the morning all the way throughout the day until he finally gets to go home well into the hours of Sunday morning. Wood covered the sort of ground you can only imagine, setting up roadblocks, encouraging residents to flee if they were unprepared, rescuing other residents later on after the fires came through and being utterly bewildered at how so little information filtered through. Most people didn’t know the fires were hitting their town until they were right on top of them, burning through their houses and incinerating their land.

Woven into the narrative are other stories, stories of residents, of CFA volunteers, of people who work for the SES (State Emergency Service) and the DSE (Department of Sustainability and Environment). All people who chose or were bound to stay and defend the small towns under siege. It’s also a look at the human condition, the human spirit and what makes people react the way they do in a crisis, be it to fight or flee, why some people can calmly take charge and others cannot. A study into small communities and how they can band together to save their own, going above and beyond the call of duty to rescue, assist and give whatever they can. It also provides information on the weather conditions that caused the blaze and highlights the total lack of preparation and warnings that rendered so many residents unable to successfully fight and so many emergency services to be unable to render the necessary assistance, even after the danger had passed.

I first became aware of this book via Bernadette from Reactions To Reading’s great review here. In something that’s sort of embarrassing, Black Saturday occurred on my 27th birthday and I was utterly oblivious to all that had occurred until the next day. I don’t leave that close to the affected areas (some 3hrs away) and given that the temperature was 49 degrees Celcius in my small town (the state high for that day actually) I spent the entire day inside under an air conditioner that refused to do anything to contribute to cooling down the temperature and then we went out for dinner to celebrate my birthday which was combined with someone in the family’s 21st. When we came out of the restaurant at about 9pm, the temperature had plummeted close to 30 degrees and we went home to a deliciously cool house around midnight and it wasn’t until the next day and the morning news that we had any idea of what other people in the state had been going through. I forever count myself lucky because our area, like most of Victoria, was so far beyond dry after years of well below average rainfalls and having already experienced a fire tragedy of its own (Ash Wednesday in 1983) that it remains a minor miracle we had no fires burning in the area that day.

Not so lucky Kinglake and surrounds and this novel is a small collection of personal stories that are both utterly heartbreaking and also, at times, curiously uplifting. There’s so much in this book to render a reader speechless, such as the description of the intensity and size of the fire and the power it generated (more apparently, than the atom bomb dropped on Heroshima) but there’s smaller things too, things like desperately injured people struggling through burns and lung injuries but ambulances were unable to get through the devastated area to get to them. The woefully inadequate numbers of tankers dispatched to fight the fires – most of the smaller towns had one or two tankers and one is required during times of activity to always stay behind and defend home base. At times there were undertrained volunteers defending evacuation centres, people had to break into doctor’s surgeries to arm themselves with medical equipment to treat the injured when it seemed getting them to help (or getting help to them) was impossible. That was some of the hardest stuff to read, that after all these people had been through and survived, they were being told by emergency dispatch etc that they couldn’t get help to them and didn’t know when they would be able to.

Kinglake-350 is definitely the sort of non-fiction that I like to read. It reads like a novel – like these people could be characters and it could be a totally made up drama. It’s compelling, rather than clinical but that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of information. There is, and it’s extensive. It deals with a history of fire and how humans view it, a general description of the weather patterns that contributed to the incident and other types of information that all give a better understanding on how this day came about. The fact that everything is real that the people are real, their plight was real, just lends it so much more power. It’s well written and researched without being overly dramatic but you never lose sight of that fact that although it reads like a riveting story, it isn’t one. It’s real life.
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