Adrian Hyland talks to Meg Mundell about Kinglake-350
Adrian Hyland is best known as the author of the award-winning (and hugely enjoyable) crime novels, Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road, both set in the Australian outback and featuring indigenous amateur sleuth Emily Tempest. He’s also a resident of the region caught up in the Black Saturday bushfires, and his new non-fiction book, Kinglake-350 is a brilliant work of reportage on those fires, already earning accolades from the likes of Kerry O’Brien, Anna Krien and Cate Kennedy. Author and journalist Meg Mundell interviewed Adrian for Readings about the book.
It takes a courageous writer to tackle a disaster story in which the characters are real people, and their trauma is far from over. It can be daunting for the reader too, bearing witness to a tragedy that almost defies description: you need to know you’re in safe hands, that the author will do justice to those who survived it. And those who did not.
In Kinglake-350, an inside account of the Black Saturday bushfires which claimed 173 lives and shattered many more, Adrian Hyland honours this completely. His novelist’s sharp eye for detail gives the book a cracking pace and vivid immediacy, but for all its terror the tale unfolds with great compassion and sensitivity. It’s gutsy and honest, but never ghoulish or gratuitous. It’s a rewarding, if often heart-rending, read – and one that will forever change the way you think about our relationship with fire.
The book opens with Lisa Jacobson’s moving poem ‘Girls and Horses in the Fire’, and builds a sense of impending menace via images from the morning of 7 February 2009: blasting hot winds, a broken water-pump, a handful of bone-dry leaf-litter. After several days of 40-plus heat, and 12 years of drought, it’s the worst forecast on record. A lone smoke plume is spotted 50 kilometres away, and bang – the tinderbox dryness of the bush explodes into a monster firestorm that hurls out embers for kilometres ahead. Australia’s most devastating bushfire screams out of control before the region’s inhabitants can draw breath, closing roads and trapping thousands in the danger zone:
‘… a firebomb the size of a caravan comes whirling out of the sky [and] ignites the surrounding bush, starting an instantaneous conflagration that goes racing away. This process is repeated a thousand, a million times over as the fire careers down from Kilmore East. The front is like a spiral nebula, whirling through space and spraying great arcs of energy in every direction.’
Our guide to Black Saturday’s unfolding horror is Roger Wood, Kinglake’s popular local copper, who was on duty that day (‘Kinglake-350’ was his radio call-sign). Like many others, Wood risked his life defending the town, even as the fire threatened his own family. The story is told with startling immediacy through the eyes of Wood and a handful of fellow rescuers and survivors: fire-fighters, police, local residents. At points the story leaps ahead briefly, like the fire itself, giving glimpses of the gathering disaster.
Hyland himself doesn’t appear in the narrative, but this is his own community he’s writing about. ‘Roger is a good friend of mine, and our kids are best friends, they go to school together,’ says Hyland, who lives in nearby St Andrews, which narrowly escaped the fire. After driving their daughters to school daily through a blackened, post-apocalyptic landscape, the two men would talk. ‘Like everyone, I was in a state of disbelief,’ he says. ‘We lost a lot of friends, went to about ten funerals. I first started writing just to try and understand what happened: how did this bloody nightmare come out of nowhere?’
Wood was initially hesitant about being the book’s protagonist, but gradually came around. ‘Being a novelist I wanted to approach the story through people, rather than ideas – to try and capture it through the eyes of one person,’ says Hyland. Sharing the community’s grief and distress, he trod carefully, only interviewing close friends and people he already knew. ‘Some people lost their whole families. I didn’t want to cause them even more trauma. I cut a lot of things out of the book.’ Particularly affecting are the ‘snapshots’ retelling the experiences of two families trapped in their homes as the fires struck. To recreate a sense of ‘being there’, he joined Wood to retrace his route that day, while the policeman shut his eyes and recalled sensory details – the fire’s jet-like roar, the heavy smoke and crashing trees. Wood himself sustained serious long-term injuries in the blaze.
Read a sample of Kinglake-350 by Booki.sh
One of the most troubling aspects of Black Saturday is that the communities it destroyed received no official warning. Caught unaware by the firestorm’s speed and ferocity, people were thrown into panicked chaos, forced to make split-second decisions with potentially massive consequences. Some had fire plans, but often this wasn’t enough. As Hyland puts it, ‘I’ve lived in the bush in Victoria for 20 years. I thought we were really well prepared, that we’d be alright. A lot of people thought that, and a lot of them died.’ Many were trapped in the Kinglake ranges, with fire closing in on all sides; over 2000 homes were destroyed, and cornered CFA fire-fighters took desperate calls for help from people they could not reach.
As Hyland writes, ‘Few who were in the Kinglake Ranges that day are ready to forgive the failure of the authorities to warn anybody in the path of the fire – even those responsible for community safety, the local emergency services personnel, the fire captains and coppers – that it was coming … many of those affected by the fire still struggle to contain their anger.’ Just minutes before the fire hit them, many people were sitting at home in front of a computer screen that told them it was 30 kilometres away. The book doesn’t dwell on blame, but describes the emotional aftershock that fire-affected communities are still struggling to deal with. It also explores the psychology of how people behave in a disaster: some stuck to protocols, others broke rules to save lives. Hyland describes single acts of heroism, noting that many more went unrecorded.
What sets Kinglake-350 apart is its strong, agile storytelling – particularly Hyland’s skill for weaving together small, telling details with big-picture concerns like climate change, weather pattern complexity, the failings of fire management policy and Australia’s historical relationship with fire: ‘My aim was to “understand” the disaster from every perspective – meteorological, fire science, psychological, cultural … But in all these things I tried to bring the novelist’s technique to bear, to approach them through the human.’ The drought, for example, is introduced by Wood picking up a handful of highly flammable leaf litter, thinking about the complex forces that have primed the bush for ignition.
But the real lesson of Black Saturday is that we’ve failed to learn from the past – from Black Thursday (1851), Red Tuesday (1898), Black Friday (1939), Ash Wednesday (1983), Black Tuesday (1967) and the Canberra firestorm (2003). ‘This wasn’t a freak event. It was a natural event that will happen again,’ says Hyland. ‘Fire needs to be taken seriously at an individual and societal level.’ If the wind hadn’t changed direction suddenly that day, Warrandyte, Greensborough and Eltham might also have been engulfed. The verdant Dandenong ranges, the leafy suburbs and thriving native gardens of outer-suburban Melbourne: all remain at risk, says Hyland.
As the world’s most fireprone country, Hyland says we’re out of touch with our environment; a CSIRO study found two million Australian homes are within 700 metres of fire zones. He contrasts Aboriginal people’s skilful ecology of fire, a targeted practice of mosaic-patterned ‘firestick farming’ that evolved over tens of thousands of years, with the grand-scale, land-razing burn-offs of white settlement, producing rich swathes of pyrophiliac (fire-loving) plants in their wake. As towns grew, people then tried to suppress fire altogether, causing massive overgrowth: a recipe for disaster. The Australian landscape needs fire – but this gung-ho approach is deadly, and Hyland warns that future fires will be worse than ever. He also tackles the disturbing crime of arson, which requires ‘little more than a box of matches, a lonely road and a twisted mind’. With an estimated 20–30,000 fires deliberately lit each year, it’s a crime we can’t afford to ignore.
After Black Saturday, Hyland joined the CFA. Bouncing around in the fire truck he shared the firies’ recollections of that day, and at training he felt first-hand what heat and flame can do to human flesh. Kinglake-350 includes stories of hope and healing in the aftermath, but Hyland knows the recovering community may not wish to relive their trauma on the page. ‘They’ve suffered enough. The book is more aimed at the wider world. Fire is a huge killer, and we still don’t understand it properly.’
Meg Mundell is the author of Black Glass.
Kinglake-350 is out now in paperback ($27.95) and ebook ($14.96). Adrian’s novels Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road are also available as ebooks for the special price of $9.99 each for the month of August.
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