The cool change hit Melbourne with a rush last night. The temperature dropped to the low twenties over the course of an hour; and by the time we went round to our neighbours' for dinner, it was perfectly pleasant. Four families, five boys; each family bringing a course (me? summer pudding; citrus fruit salad with candied peel; home-frozen Greek yoghurt with honey) Sitting outside, though, we could see one of the big water-bearing helicopters flying overhead, and thought the pink clouds might well have been reflecting smoke. But it wasn't till Margot heard from her daughter, who was helping serve dinner to firefighters in Kilmore, reporting that 40 people were feared dead, that we had any idea of how serious the fires were.
We've woken this morning — a cool, grey day — to reports that 26* are now confirmed dead across the state, with every expectation that number will rise over 40, and that the numbers will include children. Many of these died in their cars, leaving fire areas too late. Six in one car in Kinglake, where Gordon and I went hiking a few months ago. Fires around Beechworth and Myrtelford, where we cycled last year on our Ned Kelly tour.
I can't turn off the radio. The ABC turns itself into an emergency broadcaster at times like this, and I'm mesmerised by the reiteration of tiny townships and roads affected by the fires which are still burning, far worse than the most dramatic predictions. The Churchill fire that "got up and ran to the coast"; the dreadful realisation that lots of these fires were deliberately lit (sometimes by volunteer firefighters); the idea of "spotting", where the fire sends embers up to four kilometres or more ahead of itself. The new knowledge that there is a town called "Robin Hood". The man who was herding cattle wearing thongs and a t-shirt, now in the Alfred with burns to 50% of his body. The fact that people are still driving into the fire areas to have a look, amidst endless warnings to stay off the roads.
I think it's hard not to be fascinated by fire on this scale. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. And if you share my fascination, here's a link to The Age.
[Update: Sunday night. 76 dead, and numbers still expected to rise. Appalling tales emerging of trees exploding, the fire suddenly changing direction, people being trapped, running from house to house for shelter, hiding in cellars, in creek beds with children and lyrebirds, of husbands, wives, children losing each other. The landscape will regenerate, but lives and communities are shattered, and whole towns destroyed. Here's a map].
[Was going to keep updating, but it's too heartbreaking. Monday afternoon: 126 confirmed dead, but they are now saying to prepare for a total of around 230. Oh, the great pity of it all.]