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The Moment: Kinglake

2 minute read
SIMON ROBINSON and Rory Callinan

Australians like to think they know the land they live on. The country’s founding myths are built upon stories of creeks and billabongs and deserts. “I love a sunburnt country” go the lines of a beloved verse by poet Dorothea Mackellar, “A land of sweeping plains/ Of ragged mountain ranges/ Of droughts and flooding rains.”

But what happens when beauty turns to terror? Australia found out last weekend when wildfires swept through the southeastern state of Victoria. Fires are a regular and natural occurrence in the Australian bush, but nobody was ready for the conflagration that exploded through the forests and towns north of Melbourne, and elsewhere in the state, on Saturday Feb. 7. Fueled by 117 degrees F (47 degrees C) heat and fierce northerly winds, huge fireballs burned through fields, cars, houses, stores and schools.

On Sunday morning, as weeping survivors emerged from the ruins to tell of corpses beside roads and of missing relatives and neighbors, the full extent of the disaster began to dawn. More than 200 people died in just a few days, the worst peacetime loss of life in mainland Australia’s history.

In one house police found four children all huddled together. They knew they were children by the size of their skulls. Near a road, firefighters found the body of a man who appeared to have crashed his motorcycle and then died as he tried to outrun the flames. One man put his children in the car and dashed back to his house to collect something; when he returned the car was on fire and his children dead.

As the nation mourned and opened its arms to comfort those who had lost a child or a mate or all they owned, police delivered more chilling news: some of the fires had been deliberately lit. “There’s no words to describe it other than it’s mass murder,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said. Rudd spoke too of rebuilding towns “brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall.” Getting over the heightened fear of nature’s fury might take longer.

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