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As Australia fire toll hits 200, focus turns to survivors

Residents who escaped with their lives take stock of what they lost. Mental health experts anticipate a long period of recovery for many.

February 18, 2009|Julie Cart

KINGLAKE, AUSTRALIA — Pamela Phoenix had five seconds to flee her home of 30 years where she'd raised her two daughters. That was more time than many here got.

She threw her handbag into the car and tracked the onrushing bush fire in her rear-view mirror: "A fireball chasing me," as she recalled it.

Although Phoenix made it out, many of her neighbors in the Kinglake region, tucked into the Great Dividing Range northeast of Melbourne, did not. More than 130 died, including three members of a family down the road who burned to death 10 feet from the door of their fire bunker and a man who was crushed when the roof of his reinforced fire shelter collapsed on him.

The massive Feb. 7 bush fires that killed more than 200 people and erased several small communities in the southern Australian state of Victoria have prompted a wide-ranging federal inquiry, a criminal investigation and national soul-searching.

Shellshocked survivors such as Phoenix are struggling to comprehend Australia's worst natural disaster. They tell of frustrated homeowners who tried to run police roadblocks and the utter desperation of residents trained to defend their homes who realized that nothing and no one could withstand the wind, heat and flames.

Mental health experts are charting what they term a significant incidence of post-traumatic stress among the thousands of Australians who narrowly escaped the fires and now are bombarded with horrifying images repeatedly broadcast by news outlets.

The death toll has stunned Australians, who have long endured fires but have never witnessed conflagrations so close to housing subdivisions. Mental health authorities say that the emotional scars will prove to be the most difficult to fade.

Sandy McFarlane, a psychiatry professor at the University of Adelaide, studies post-traumatic stress and has examined the aftermath of Australia's 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, which killed 83 people and, until Feb. 7, were the most deadly in the nation's history.

"What is always underestimated is the long tail of these events," he said. "These are events that impact on communities for years. Initially, people believe that they can cope with their distress, that time will get it better, but the evidence is that often it doesn't, and when they come forward wanting help, the specialist services that have been put in place have disappeared. There is a real need for planners not to make that same mistake."

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 firefighters are still battling a dozen blazes in drought-stricken areas. Six fires remained out of control, threatening homes.

The death toll is expected to climb further as forensic teams discover more bodies in areas where fire incinerated everything in its path.

The fires in this area swept down from Mt. Disappointment, driven by erratic winds that created fire behavior that authorities here described as unprecedented. One computer model used by the Country Fire Authority to predict fire intensity stops at 100, indicating the worst-anticipated fire. Conditions on what is now known as Black Saturday were rated at 150, off the scale.

Like many Victorians, Phoenix, 72, has seen her share of bush fires. In 1983 she was in the beach town of Lorne when fire authorities ordered residents to take refuge in the sea to escape the flames.

Phoenix and her husband, Andrew Northcott, went back to their property the other day, and found nothing left to salvage. Eucalyptus forests in Kinglake have been obliterated by flames that sterilized the soil and cracked rocks.

Northcott carried a sack of bread to leave for birds on their 7 1/2 acres. A small wallaby bounded past. Northcott called out for a stag that used to hang around the house with a doe. They found the female's body down the hill and wondered whether the male was still around.

Down the mountain, the quiet town of Whittlesea has been transformed into a staging area for survivors. Thousands are homeless and expect to remain so for many months.

The regional sports complex is packed with pallet after pallet of drinking water and canned goods. The Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a tent offering dog food. Local chiropractors have set up makeshift clinics. There are tables staffed by insurance adjusters or federal assistance officers, and private booths to make phone calls.

A nearby cricket field resembles a sprawling flea market flush with donated items: shoes, toiletries, toys, underwear, towels. Someone brought in a box of sterling silver cutlery that looked like a wedding present. So much clothing and food has been donated that after the second day authorities told Australians to stop giving goods and start writing checks.

A sprinkling of funerals have begun. In Whittlesea, officials took over a vacant corner shop, covering the windows with hastily made curtains. It's now a discreet place for families to try on clothes suitable for funerals. An anonymous donor sent 5,000 dark suits.

"You've got nothing to wear to your own child's funeral? How bad is that?" said volunteer Julie Minarelli, from nearby Humevale. More than 20 families were served on the first day. Many in these hard-hit communities are preparing to attend multiple funerals.

Jayne Maartens' family in Humevale lost only a few fences. She says she feels survivor's guilt.

"You can't believe what people went through," she said, gathering plastic food-storage bins to take to an evacuee encampment. "People begging cops to allow them back to save their families. I know many people, myself included, who snuck back anyway. They have lost everything. Everything. Neighbors burnt out.

"Looking at what we have, it's hard to accept that we were saved and so many were not."

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julie.cart@latimes.com

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