Regular readers of this blog will know I am rather taken with the writings of Adrian Hyland. His two novels set in central Australia, Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road, are both among my favourites of the past few years. But Kinglake-350, officially published on 1 August, is a different kettle of fish all together from these two stories.
Based on Hyland’s personal experiences, countless interviews and solid research the book is an account of the terrible February day in 2009 when the most ferocious bushfires on record swept through large swathes of rural Victoria, leaving 173 people dead, thousands of homes destroyed and much of the environment forever and irretrievably altered.
Rather than trying to account for every detail of the enormous tragedy the book offers a handful of individual stories of the day, with that of Acting Police Sergeant Roger Wood at its heart. Wood was in charge of the Kinglake police station on Saturday 7 February 2009 and Hyland takes us through his day from the moment he wakes up knowing that conditions are the worst they could possibly be from a fire hazard perspective. Leaving his wife and children at home on the outskirts of St Andrews he drives 13 kilometres up a dangerously winding road to the town of Kinglake to start his day’s work and reports into the police communications centre with his radio call sign: Kinglake-350. With one eye always on the sky, the weather, the air itself Wood goes about his routine duties until the first fire in the region breaks out in the early afternoon. He then hurries from one mini-crisis point to the next: diverting people from harm’s way, helping them to evacuate, driving victims to medical help and undertaking countless other tasks. For most of that time he is unable to contact his own family after hearing that their house is in the direct path of a fire.
Of course Wood is only one of thousands of participants in the day’s events and Hyland has included others. There are the Country Fire Association volunteers, nurses, policemen and ordinary people whose stories unfold alongside Wood’s as they try to save people, homes and entire towns without much in the way of resources or the much-needed early warnings. We meet people who survived due to good preparation, others who survived through luck and more who didn’t survive at all.
By their nature these personal accounts of the day are fragmented and can tell only snatches of the bigger story and so Hyland has complemented them with research into various aspects of what led to the fires, what happened on the day itself and, in a more limited way, the aftermath. There are sections dealing with elements such as
- the weather and prevailing conditions in the region that explain how fires of such intensity and never-before-seen behaviour occurred
- the alarming facts about the kinds of people who commit the crime of arson and the paltry number of whom are ever caught
- the psychology of human behaviour in crises
- the damage we humans have done to our precious environment and our seeming inability to learn anything much at all from our mistakes
- the systems and procedures that worked on the day, and those that didn’t
- how much (and how little) we know about the science of fires
As someone who was in no way involved with that terrible day and who has only ever watched a bushfire from the relative safety of the outer suburbs I found this book, with its combination of personal stories and academic elements, provided one of the few comprehensible accounts of tragedy I have ever read. So often the media and other true accounts of such events focus on tallies of the dead and injured or become embroiled in the blame game. I can’t tell you how much nonsense I saw and read about these fires in the days after that weekend, often from people who know as little about what causes bushfires and how to fight them as I do (which in case I haven’t made it clear is none at all).
What Kinglake-350 did instead for me was provide a comprehensible depiction of how the world fell apart for thousands of people, largely through no fault of their own. Certainly some some individual events on the day might have gone differently if this agency had better communications or that person had had a proper fire plan but, in the end, the blame game is fairly pointless (if not out-rightly dangerous by lulling people into a false sense of their own safety and security). But ultimately this is a book about a community of people who coped with a natural disaster in the best way they could with a combination of knowledge, skill, luck and courage. Their individual and collective stories are sombre, heart-wrenching and so totally compelling I read the entire thing in a single sitting, starting late last night and finishing at about two o’clock this morning.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Publisher Text Publishing 
Length no idea (this ebook format is peculiar)
Format a Booki.sh ebook (which lives forever in the cloud)
Source I bought it