2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission - Lay Witness Statements (Final Report Volume 4)

Witness statement

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Vicki Jane Ruhr

I, Vicki Jane Ruhr, nurse, of This copy has been removed to protect the privacy of an individual., Eltham, in the state of Victoria state as follows:

  1. My husband Cris and I own a two-acre property located at This copy has been removed to protect the privacy of an individual., Kinglake. Maps showing the location of the property are attached to this statement and marked VJR-1. We lived there from 1999 until 7 February 2009 with our son Lachlan (now 12 years old but 11 years old at the time of the fire). Lachlan has Autism Spectrum Disorder, a lifelong disorder that was diagnosed when he was three years old. I have another son Jean-Paul (19) who was away on student exchange in the United States on 7 February 2009.
  2. On that day, our house and most of our possessions were destroyed by the bushfires after we tried to defend the house. We also lost all of our pets except the dear old family dog. We are currently renting the property located at This copy has been removed to protect the privacy of an individual., Eltham, while we decide whether or not we want to rebuild at our property in Kinglake.

Our property

  1. Our property is located just over one kilometre west of the Kinglake town centre, almost on the corner of Mountain Home Road. I usually refer to Kinglake-Healesville Road (our road) as Mount Slide Road, and so do most of my neighbours.
  2. We had an olive grove at the rear of our property which covered approximately one and a half acres. The closest edge of the olive grove was about 30 metres from the house. The olive grove was just a hobby to begin with but in our semi-retirement, Cris and I hoped to farm the olives and sell them commercially from our property, together with coffee and lots of other terrific local produce. We had about 180 olive trees which were fairly mature (they weren't ground height shrubs) and most of them were 8 or 10 feet tall. We planted the trees in 2002. The olive grove was always very clear on the ground. My husband was very pedantic about keeping the grass closely mown and the weeds down, especially during the summer months, and it had been mown the week before the fire.
  3. Our house was approximately 30-40 metres off the road. Next to our house was a big tin shed, a 10,000 gallon concrete water tank and a smaller 5000 litre tank. We had a number of small outhouses for poultry as well as another smaller shed. The perimeter of the property bordered other residential properties, except for the section which ran along the road.
  4. We had a number of trees on the property. Some were established trees that were there when we moved to the property and must have been at least 30 or 40 years old. There was a mixture of trees out the front of the house: cherry blossoms, maples, elms, some very large camellias and a very big gum tree. We had a scattering of Messmate gums along the side of the house, and mature gums and pine trees lining the perimeter of the property.
  5. We had lots of pets, including two rabbits, a dog, geese, ducks and chickens.
  6. Our house was made of Hardiplank. It had four bedrooms, a study, two large living areas and a bathroom. At the front, we had a veranda and at the back a wooden deck. It was a very sound and solid house which withstood lots of storms, strong winds and heavy rain while we lived there.
  7. There were a few aspects of the house that were designed to assist us in defending it from a bushfire and saving our lives. We had a sprinkler on the roof. We had a Terrazzo floor in the living area. Terrazzo is a combination of marble and concrete and is apparently very sturdy. When we laid the Terrazzo tiles, we were told by the people who sold it to us that if anything happened to the house the Terrazzo would remain intact and we could shelter safely in that room. As it turned out, the fire on Black Saturday decimated the Terrazzo tiles.
  8. We also had a petrol-driven generator which kept our main water tank full by supplementing it with rain water from our smaller tank and bore water. We had a bore on our property but no dam. On 7 February 2009, our main water tank was full to the brim. We had a number of garden hoses around the property but no fire fighting hoses.

Fire plan

  1. Over the years, I attended a number of Community Fire Guard meetings and other meetings organised by the CFA in my local area. Cris came to some of the meetings too. I saw it as my role to go out into the community to attend these types of meetings. I watched DVDs there and took home some pamphlets. The advice I received at these meetings was sometimes a bit general, but it was still helpful. We had some formal sessions with Helen Wasitzki, who I understand coordinated a lot of Community Fire Guard groups in the area and helped set them up in communities. I was given lots of practical tips for preparing ourselves and our property for bushfire, such as wearing appropriate protective clothing, placing buckets around the house on hot days and putting together a fire kit box full of handy survival items. They also told us to work out a safe evacuation point from the house (to use in the event that the house was burning) and gave us tips on how and when to evacuate. I remember they told to wait until the radiant heat had subsided before jumping out of the house.
  2. In my neighbourhood we had a fire tree of sorts. It was never tested due to everyone's work commitments. We could never find a time when everyone was at home at the same time.
  3. My family had a written fire plan, which I put together after attending a Community Fire Guard meeting following the fire scare in Kinglake on Australia Day in 2006. I no longer have a copy of the fire plan because it was destroyed on Black Saturday. Our fire plan had three alternatives: A, B and C. Generally speaking, our plan was to stay and defend our house, so long as both Cris and I were home.
  4. Plan A was more or less about getting all of our equipment out once we knew it was going to be a Total Fire Ban day. Whenever there was a Total Fire Ban day, we placed about two dozen buckets around the house. My husband used to think I was a bit over the top but I would also use plastic wheelie storage bins which hold about 20 litres of water. We also put lots of towels around the house and had flannelette shirts, overalls, boots and hard hats hanging by the back door. On the advice of the CFA, we had a fire kit box. This contained torches, matches, candles, batteries, first aid supplies and a copy of our written fire plan. If I had enough time, I would do all the outside stuff because my husband was at work during the week and I was at home. So I would do a bit of extra raking, make sure all the sprinklers were working and also make sure that the generator was working and that it had enough fuel.
  5. Under Plan A, if we knew that a fire was going to affect our property, we were to get Lachlan dressed and give him instructions to sit with the dog in the centre of the house with a wet towel wrapped around him. We really didn't want him to be wandering around trying to find us and trying to help, even though he is probably capable of helping here and there. We just felt that it was better that he had the designated role of sitting with the dog and a water bottle, and that we would come back and report to him on how things were looking. Giving Lachlan the dog was a good way to keep him occupied and make him feel like he was contributing to the fire plan. Lachlan fully understood the plan, and we practised it with him.
  6. Fire Plan B was for situations where only one of Cris or I was home or if a really bad fire was on its way. In those circumstances, whoever was home would pack up the car and leave. We would have gone to Plan B on 7 February 2009 if we received an official warning that the fire was out of control, heading to Kinglake and that there was no chance of anyone stopping it. In those circumstances, we did not want to try to stay and defend the property.
  7. Plan C wasn't written down but it was for those situations where the fire was too big for us to defend the house but we were not able to escape. The plan was basically to be flexible and adaptable and to always keep our focus without going to pieces – we could do that later. In other words, I think the plan was just to go with the flow, depending on what happened.
  8. Even though Plan A was to stay and defend, we would have evacuated on 7 February 2009 if we had received sufficient warning that a huge fire was approaching Kinglake. The fire we experienced that day was the sort of thing that would have moved us to Plan B. If we had known that there was a hell of a fire coming and we had time to drive out safely, we would have just accepted that there was no way that we were going to be able to stop it with the equipment we had and we would have gotten out. In the end, we were stuck with Plan C – trying to survive in circumstances where we couldn't escape.

Black Saturday

  1. It is difficult to portray how quickly everything happened on 7 February 2009. At 4.50pm, I was in the Kinglake township and approximately one hour later I was laying face-down in my paddock, having just escaped my burning home with Cris, Lachlan, a close friend and neighbour, Michael This copy has been removed to protect the privacy of an individual., and the family dog.
  2. All predictions about the conditions on 7 February 2009 did not prepare us for how extreme it actually was. Even before the bushfire came, stepping out of the house was akin to entering a fan-forced oven and it was very uncomfortable to be outside for more than 10 minutes at a time.
  3. In the morning, I regularly patrolled our home, checking the skies and smelling the air for any signs of smoke. I kept a vigilant watch over the CFA website for updates, and listened to every ABC Radio update I could. I knew from my experience during the Australia Day 2006 bushfires that the smell of bushfire smoke could alert you early and often ahead of any official reports.
  4. At about 1.00pm, Cris and I tested our roof sprinkler system, checked that our generator was full of fuel and ready to go, and filled all the buckets and containers with water. We placed many of the buckets and containers around the outside of the house, and some in a large garden trolley for easy manoeuvring. We then moved our dog and rabbits into the coolest part of the house near a portable fan.
  5. By about 1.30pm, feeling reassured by the latest CFA and radio reports (which related to various fires going throughout Victoria, but nothing reported about fires which were, or which could potentially be, posing any threat to our area), and believing we had done all we could around the house, we sat down with Lachlan to watch the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. We just tried to keep as comfortable as possible for the afternoon.
  6. While watching the film, I continued to monitor the CFA website and listen to the ABC on a portable radio for fresh reports. Cris thought I was overdoing things, but I kept going outside briefly to patrol the property and I refreshed the screen on my computer every few minutes because lots of new information was being posted. I recall mentioning to my husband that the ABC had reported fires out at Kilmore. The report concerned me but Kilmore is a long way away and it did not prompt us to do anything further with our fire plan. I recall that on the CFA website, there were reports of a couple of insignificant-sounding events, indicating that there was minor activity occurring slightly closer to the Kinglake area (for example, in the Coombs Road area). However, I do not recall reports of any "urgent threat messages".
  7. At about 4.15pm, I received a telephone call from Michael This copy has been removed to protect the privacy of an individual.. Michael is a close friend who lived alone near us at Glenburn Road, Kinglake, some 5 minutes drive away. When Michael spoke, I noticed that his voice was unusually slow and slightly slurred and he told me that he was concerned that he might be suffering from heat stress. He also told me that he'd had it before and had been put on a drip in hospital as a result. He asked if I could come and check on him because I am a nurse. I said I would go to him, and call an ambulance if required, but that I could not drive him to hospital as I did not want to leave Kinglake on that day.
  8. It was around this time I remember that we lost power, which ironically coincided with my lap-top computer alarm indicating the battery was about to go flat. I realised at this point that I would now have to rely solely on the radio for all updates and reports – at least until the power returned.
  9. At approximately 4.45pm, I set out in the car to Michael's house, armed with a cold-pack, portable blood pressure machine and a bottle of Gatorade. I did not smell or see any smoke at this time.
  10. As I drove along Mount Slide Road towards the Kinglake township, I noticed the wind increase. When I arrived in town, I noticed a white CFA ute parked across the road at the roundabout at the intersection of Heidelberg-Kinglake Road, the road to St Andrews. It appeared to be acting as a type of roadblock.
  11. I recognised a local resident Diane McLeod manning the roadblock. Diane was wearing a pair of CFA yellow overalls. As I came closer and passed through the roundabout, I saw that she had a very worried look on her face. I pulled up about 25 metres away at the petrol station and got out intending to walk up to Diane and ask what was going on.
  12. As I pulled up, the shop owner approached and informed me that he could not sell me any petrol as he was about to close up. He must have assumed I was coming to get fuel. I remember checking the car radio clock at that time and seeing it read exactly 4.50pm. I informed the shop owner that I didn't need any petrol and that I'd just stopped there because they had blocked the road to St Andrews. I pointed to the roundabout and asked if he knew what was going on. He shrugged his shoulders and moved off. He was carrying a clipboard and I noticed that he was casually going about his normal business, taking the fuel bowser readings prior to closing for the day.
  13. The Cappa Rossi Café is right next-door to the petrol station and I saw the owners, Isabella and Ross, standing outside on the veranda together with their staff. They were staring past me toward the roadblock. As I got out of my car, I asked them if they knew what was going on. Everyone looked a little stunned and they shook their heads. I recall that Isabella asked me if I knew anything and I think I responded by just shaking my head.
  14. After I had spoken to the people at the café, I strode quickly towards the roundabout. Suddenly I spotted a small, white sedan followed by a blue-colored station wagon, being driven hurriedly toward the roundabout from the direction of St Andrews. Both cars pulled up very quickly and a few metres away from where I was walking.
  15. A blonde-haired woman driving the first car opened her door, got out of her seat and staggered out on to the road and began yelling that there was a fire in St Andrews and that people were in trouble. Sensing immediately that something was obviously very wrong, I rushed to her aid. I began asking questions whilst pulling out my mobile phone so that I could call triple zero. The call did not get through. I was surprised by that and I then became quite worried after I only heard a recorded message. The message said something about "currently experiencing a large number of calls" with an instruction to "call back later".
  16. After that failed phone call, I remember noticing that the weather was deteriorating: the wind was increasing and there was a large amount of debris and dust blowing in the air. I gently and quickly guided the woman from the car in to the Cappa Rossi Café. It was very difficult to comprehend exactly what she was saying while we walked. She was very distressed and virtually incoherent at times. I do clearly recall her saying that St Andrews was on fire and that her husband was down there. When we arrived at the café, I quickly explained to Isabella where the woman had driven from and that there seemed to be something very wrong down in St Andrews. I asked Isabella to call triple-zero immediately and to keep dialling until she got through. I remember asking the staff to provide the woman with any help they could and to give her some water or orange juice. I then explained that I had to leave to see to a local resident who was unwell and to try and find out what was going on at the roadblock.
  17. As I returned to my car, I noticed there was a young girl who looked to be about 10 years old seated in the same car the woman had been driving. I hadn't noticed her before. I approached the girl and saw that she was crying and very distressed. All car windows were wound up and there was a dog inside with her. I asked her if it was her mum inside the café and she nodded. She was in tears and yelled though the window she wanted to be with her mum but was worried about the dog getting out and escaping. I managed to get her out of the car (leaving one of the windows slightly open so that the dog could get some fresh air) and took her to the café to join her mother. I gave the staff instructions to look after her, explaining that both the girl and her mother were in shock and needed urgent assistance.
  18. From the snatches of information I was able to get from the woman from St Andrews, it was apparent something was very seriously wrong. I quickly headed back to the roundabout to try and get some information from the CFA volunteer, who remained beside the CFA utility vehicle blocking the road. I saw that a few other concerned local residents had also arrived.
  19. As I was about to ask what was happening, I caught sight of our CFA Captain, Paul Hendrie, approaching on foot. He addressed CFA volunteer Diane McLeod, and began to gesticulate with both arms whilst shouting and telling her that he wanted her to get back over to the shed and get some "lines" ready. I also heard him tell her that they needed to protect the District Services Centre. Mr Hendrie was very pale, and he had beads of sweat running down his face. His eyes were wide and he appeared quite terrified. He did not speak directly to me or any of the other residents but I clearly remember thinking that if our CFA Captain looked like that, then something really, really bad must have been happening. I thought that he was displaying signs of shock and he was obviously having difficulty keeping himself together. My instincts told me I wouldn't get any helpful information from him.
  20. At this time, I recall looking towards St Andrews. I saw a great plume of dirty, light-brown coloured smoke towering high up in to the sky. Moving smoke was billowing out rapidly right toward our direction. I quickly got back in my car and headed straight for home to tell my husband what had happened.
  21. I pulled up in our driveway and sounded the horn. Cris soon opened the front door and told me that he already knew something was going on and that he had been getting stuff organised. I told Cris that I would help him get ready right after I picked up Michael. I then drove off again.
  22. At approximately 5.15pm, I arrived at Michael's house and rushed to his front door. I called out to Michael and he responded casually and invited me to let myself in. I remember it was becoming difficult to see inside his house because of the smoke. It was like dusk was setting very fast. I found Michael and took him outside to assess him quickly in the fading light. His blood pressure was very high. I explained to him that I needed to get home as soon as possible because it seemed that a fire was coming. He agreed to come with me and told me that he would be able to walk to my car. He took an age to get to my car and he was obviously not well. At one stage I had to yell at him after he asked me to wait while he found his keys – we didn't have time for that. I remember that it was getting darker and darker outside by the second.
  23. Michael finally got in the car. As I was reversing out he pointed across me to the other side of the road and said: "Oh look, there's a fire over there" in a strangely calm manner. I glanced over and saw something fully alight out the front of one of the neighbouring properties. I knew Michael was going into shock and I knew I needed to get home as quickly and as safely as possible.
  24. I drove through the main street and was very focused upon the road and traffic ahead. I vaguely recall seeing fire spotting here and there. Turning into Mount Slide Road from the roundabout, I could see car tail-lights and head-lights clearly ahead. A few moments later, these lights were passing in and out of low flames racing horizontally from one side of the road to the other and toward houses. I realised that I would have to drive through those flames to get to my house. As we approached the large stream of fire across the road, the car became instantly hot. I made sure that Michael was wearing his seat belt and then I floored it. Flying missiles began to thump and thwack menacingly on to the windscreen. After around three or five seconds, we passed through the fire and out into clear air. Thankfully it was clear from there all the way to my driveway.
  25. At about 5.30pm, I parked the car in the shed and went inside the house with Michael. I was finding the increasing darkness to be quite disorienting and foreboding. I checked on Lachlan, who was sitting wrapped in a damp towel in the rumpus room, which was in the central part of the house with the Terrazzo tile floor. Cris had given Lachlan clear instructions not to move, and to watch over the dog and rabbits which had been brought into the house earlier. I ran out the back door and spoke to Cris. He quickly explained we'd already had a few ember attacks, but everything seemed to be under control at that point. He told me to get dressed in my protective gear and then come back outside as soon as I could to help.
  26. Despite the fact that Michael was obviously not feeling well and in shock, we were in desperate need of another pair of hands. I grabbed a multi-pack of tea-light candles and threw them on the kitchen bench. I then instructed Michael to light some and place them in safe places about the house. I then told him to come straight back to see me about another job as soon as he'd finished. At around this time I also called my parents on the telephone and instructed Michael to tell them what was happening, that we are okay and to let them know I would call again as soon as I could. At this point, I remember it was becoming noisy outside but I could still hear other sounds: Cris calling for me to come outside, Lachlan crying, and the sprinkler system swooshing on the roof.
  27. After helping Cris with a few things outside, I came back into my living room and placed a full bucket of water in the centre of the room and stopped momentarily. I remember desperately searching my brain, needing to think about what was happening and what I should do. Suddenly my nursing training came to me. Subconsciously, I heard the words "Assess", "Plan" and "Implement". I told myself not to panic and to keep calm. At that moment, my adrenal system seemed to take over and I found myself urinating involuntarily. I ignored this and called out for Michael to get me a towel.
  28. I then took Michael straight to one of the back rooms of the house, and showed him our evacuation point – a sliding window in the dressing room. Then I asked him to go back and stay with Lachlan and wait there until I came back inside.
  29. I went outside to help Cris again. After standing upon a few small embers and extinguishing some larger flare-ups at the back of our house with water, we decided to move to the front and check on the situation there. We were startled to see a large section of flames taking hold of roadside scrub on the opposite side of the road from our property. The howling wind was pushing fire up into the fully grown pine trees directly across from us. Vegetation around our old storage shed at the front of our property had also caught fire, as had the shed itself. I headed towards the shed with a bucket of water and a wet mat. Cris yelled at me to leave it as it was too far gone and too far away, and to concentrate on protecting the house. Fire was now raging across the road and consuming any fuel in its path. I began to feel real trepidation.
  30. At approximately 5.45pm, everything went very quiet and the wind completely stopped. All time seemed to come to a standstill. Cris abruptly turned away from my direction, looked toward the west and broke the eerie silence by shouting out loudly "Here it comes!" As soon as he said that, the wind returned with a tremendous force and branches all around were catching on fire, cracking and thumping to the ground. The noise was horrendous. Fire now entered our property and was coming in at us fast and randomly from all directions. We threw buckets of water on whatever we could but the massive and increasing scale of the fire made it futile. I yelled to Cris above the noise that I was going back inside to put on my overalls and get some wet bandannas to help with the smoke.
  31. I did not hear the main, thunderous roar of the fire as I was inside at this time. Cris did and we have talked about it since.
  32. I got inside and quickly checked on Lachlan and Michael. They were sitting together in the central part of our house with our dog and two pet rabbits. Lachlan was absolutely terrified and crying inconsolably. Michael was doing his best to comfort and reassure him. I hugged Lachlan and told him his Dad and I would look after him and that we would get through this, no matter what. I remember I took his face in my hands and told him I needed him to try really hard to be brave and to look after the animals. I then explained to Michael that things were not so good outside and told him to stay put with Lachlan until I came back.
  33. It was around this time I telephoned my parents. I remember thinking it was likely we would lose the telephone line at any moment. When I picked up the phone, I was relieved to hear a dial tone. My mother answered the call and I explained what was going on as quickly and clearly as possible. I remember asking her to get on the phone and ask for some emergency resources to be sent to us. Before ending the call, I told her we needed tankers and helicopters as things were very bad.
  34. I couldn't find my overalls because they were stored in the laundry and it was entirely dark in there. I quickly put on a pair of Cris' work shorts over my track-pants. I found a long-sleeved flannelette shirt which I threw over my short sleeved polo top.
  35. At about 5.50pm, I headed back outside onto the rear veranda. Things were deteriorating fast. It was extremely hot and a fierce wind was gusting smoke in all directions. I leant over the side end of the veranda and looked out through swirling and heavy clouds of smoke toward the front of our house. I was shocked to see a shower of large embers raining heavily down upon everything. It was like a monsoon of fire. It was surreal and slightly mesmerising. From where I was standing, I could not see the front of our house and I could not see Cris. The fire seemed to be out of control. I decided that it was time to take refuge inside. I screamed to Cris to come inside and I was very worried that something had happened to him. Cris eventually answered me and he told me later that he believes he came back into the house via the front door.
  36. I went through the house checking for smoke and any fire. Our smoke alarms were going off so I knocked one of them off the ceiling with one swipe and threw it into the refrigerator so we could at least hear ourselves think. I was also concerned about the impact that the noise was having on Lachlan, whose Autism means that he is very sensitive to sound.
  37. Once he was inside, Cris checked the front section of the home. He found that the study at the western point of our house had been breached by fire and that it had entered the ceiling corner. He closed off this section by pulling the sliding door across and did the same with the nearby laundry door, finding flames now coming into this area too. Soon afterwards, we heard the laundry window explode and he instructed us not to open this door or go anywhere near the laundry.
  38. Suddenly, the noise of the water hitting the roof via the sprinklers stopped. We heard a bang and realised that the generator (and therefore our water) had gone.
  39. It was around this time I began to feel real fear. Although I never doubted we would make it through, my mind began to play tricks as I tried hard to keep focussed. At that point, I knew it was only a matter of time until we would have to leave the house.
  40. We retreated back into the rumpus room and kept checking the adjacent room, the living area, for smoke and fire. I lifted the roman blind across the rumpus room window to check what was happening outside and was shocked to see our entire front garden now fully ablaze. The fire was in the trees and fierce winds were pushing huge flames out across the garden at bizarre horizontal angles. I told Cris that we could not exit the house at this time as we would be heading straight out into the fire.
  41. We kept checking the adjacent room's ceiling for smoke and flames every few seconds. A small amount of light, grey coloured smoke was rolling along the ceiling but it was high and had not yet reached the next room where we were.
  42. At about 6.00pm, Cris and I decided it was best for all of us to move to the room at the back corner of the house and to prepare to evacuate. Cris pulled an extension cord out of a socket and quickly fashioned a dog lead out of it which he placed around our dog's neck and we made a silent decision not to take the rabbits. I guess we both knew that we'd have to carry them by hand and we needed to have our hands free. As we moved toward the back room, smoke was now entering the rumpus room, where we had just come from, and it was getting lower and had changed colour from grey to black.
  43. We got to the evacuation point in the dressing room and began putting wet towels (from the bucket I'd left there earlier) around our shoulders, one at a time. Cris tore down the Venetian blind, opened the sliding window and kicked out the fly-wire screen. He poked out his head and looked towards the left-hand side of our veranda out to the direction from which the fire had come. He got over the window sill, pulling the dog with him. Lachlan went out the window next and while he was going out, I realised that he wasn't wearing any shoes. In the darkness, I scrambled around for a pair of shoes and I found an old pair of riding boots, which I tossed out to Cris so he could put them on Lachlan's feet while Michael clambered out the window. I went to grab a wet towel for myself and realised that we were one short – there was no towel in the bucket. I found a dressing gown and dunked it in the bucket before climbing out the window and I also took our fire kit box with me.
  44. As I stepped out, I could see the laser light roofing dripping in large globules onto the wooden veranda which was alight and spreading fast toward me. I remember thinking it looked like something out of a silly cartoon, with one plank of burning wood rapidly catching onto the next piece, bit by bit.
  45. Cris grabbed me by the arm as I made it off the veranda landing onto the ground below. The smoke was very thick and pungent, but the fires provided enough light to see where we were going. We all marched in single-file hurriedly down into the middle of the back paddock, which contained our olive grove, and covered our mouths and noses with the wet towelling. We lay face-down on the ground in the olive grove after helping each other place the towels and dressing gown over the top of us. Cris was wearing a hard-hat and goggles and he took them off and put them on Lachlan.
  46. I remember praying, something which I don't routinely do, and I believed quite resolutely we were all going to make it through this night. I spoke calmly to Lachlan and reminded him to keep his head down and his towel around his face. The four of us continuously spoke to one another and kept asking how we were all doing. The smoke would increase at times and become almost overwhelming, and then it would lift and lighten so we could see a little better.
  47. At about this time, I remember thinking about the CFA and its helicopters. I wondered why we hadn't seen or heard anybody coming to help us. There was simply nobody and I began to feel quite anxious and abandoned. Using Cris' mobile telephone, I telephoned a very close friend, Jodie Thorneycroft. Jodie said she was in Diamond Creek and knew about the fire as her husband Peter had been up on the roof of the Kinglake Pub fighting it. Jodie had received intermittent reports about the fire and some photos from Peter via mobile phone. She said the fire was very, very serious. I told her we had seen no emergency services and asked her to urgently try to get some resources up to Kinglake as soon as she could.
  48. Our entire house was razed in approximately five to seven minutes. At one stage, out in the paddock, Cris lay over on his side and became very distraught at the sight of our house burning down. I glanced toward it at one point then quickly turned my head away. I was still very afraid of losing my focus and knew we weren't yet out of danger. I recall thinking we were all going to be in for a long night. I tried to support Cris and reached out for his hand and found his wedding ring. I told him no matter how bad it all was we were all so lucky to get out alive and we had our wedding rings and that's all that really mattered right then.
  49. We remained in the paddock for approximately 20 or 30 minutes after the house became fully alight. Cris took some photos of the house burning on his mobile phone. These photos are attached to this statement and marked VJR-2. During this time, the smoke drifted in and out and it was sometimes became very thick and unpleasant, forcing us to lay flat again and use the towels to cover our faces.
  50. At one stage, the smoke lifted enough for us to see down through our paddock to the next property below ours. I was worried about the fire returning and decided we needed to consider moving down to safer ground. I was troubled by the thought of us all being potentially overcome by smoke. I remember thinking how incredibly sad it would be to die like that after having just escaped unharmed from our burning house. I spoke to Cris and Michael and we made the decision to move as soon as the smoke lifted enough.
  51. At about 6.30pm, Cris walked away from the rest of us and checked to see if it was safe to move. He returned a short time later and told us all to get moving and follow him directly down to the neighbouring property belonging to Cheryl and Allan Phillips.
  52. Noticing some of the bordering fence posts were alight, we searched for and located a safe section of the fence to climb through the wire and saw Cheryl and some other people moving around through the smoke. I called out to Cheryl and she came running toward us. I remember she kept saying how she was so happy to see us and how very sorry she was about our house.
  53. We met up with Allan, exchanged a few quick words and then commenced assisting him to extinguish some small spot fires which were still burning on grass and fence posts. Cheryl's and Allan's house was out of the direct path of the firestorm and had sustained only minimal fire damage. They invited us to take refuge there for the night and we accepted. They had a petrol-powered fire pump connected to swimming pool water, but no electricity, generator or batteries for the portable radio.
  54. Once their property appeared to be safe, Cheryl boiled water (using an LPG fuelled stove which was able to ignite manually) and made us hot drinks. Cris and I put Lachlan in a bed and I stayed talking with him for some time until he began to calm down and he eventually fell asleep. After that, the rest of us sat together outside at a picnic bench, more or less debriefing for some time. Throughout the night, the unexpected and constant noise of LPG tanks exploding and trees falling over with a heavy thud was very frightening.
  55. Allan's and Cheryl's property overlooked a small vale near a creek, and we had good vision of the land and properties across the creek. We saw random fires start up across the creek and up on the opposite hill. I remember hearing somebody on a nearby property start up a chainsaw and cut trees for a long time. Helplessly, we watched what looked like a two storey house catch alight and burn to the ground.
  56. At approximately 10.00pm, we started up Allan's car so that we could hear some news reports on the radio. We heard the Murrindindi Shire Mayor, Lyn Gunter, talking about the fire and we received a bit of information about the size and scale of the fire.
  57. At around midnight, we saw flashing red and blue lights slowly moving along Mount Slide Road toward our property. Cris and Michael walked up back through our property and met with a CFA crew on a St Andrews tanker. I followed them, and met with the CFA volunteers who were asking after people and giving out bottles of water. They were trying to reassure us but they appeared exhausted and numb. After we met them, we returned to Cheryl's and Allan's house.
  58. I sent Cris off to lie down with Lachlan, suggesting we try and take turns staying up to "keep watch" until the morning, just in case the fires turned back. Unable to sleep, I patrolled the perimeter of the house on and off all night and Michael went off for a walk every now and then to check out for fire.
  59. At approximately 2.00am, and on one of the occasions when I was scouting around the house, I observed that a smoking fence post had reignited close to some large trees. I walked to and from the swimming pool collecting buckets of water and pouring it onto that fire. It had become darker and difficult to see and as I was returning to the house, I fell over a high retaining wall. I landed heavily on my knees and hands, also knocking my head on the ground. Excruciating pain shot through my right knee and it took me some time to be able stand and get mobile again. When I did, I went back to the house and sat down, raising an injured leg up on an outdoor chair. I was in a lot of pain.
  60. I was very fatigued and I tried to rest for a while. I was starting to doze when I experienced a bright red color emanating through my eye-lids. When I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see a paddock on fire directly opposite and across the creek. The wind had suddenly increased and the fire was growing by the second. I dialled triple-zero and was very surprised when an operator answered my call. I provided as much information I could about the location and size of the fire, as well my name and mobile number. Approximately 20 minutes later, I saw a CFA tanker arrive at the location and watched the crew successfully extinguish this fire in around 20 or 30 minutes.
  61. When it became light enough, Allan drove me and Michael to the Kinglake CFA station. We had to carefully traverse still burning branches and debris on the road. We arrived at the CFA station at approximately 6.30am. There were hundreds of people there. People were wandering around in a daze and some locals were serving hot drinks. I met and hugged many, many people – some I knew and some I didn't. After a short while, we went back to Allan's house to collect Cris and Lachlan and then returned to the CFA station.
  62. At approximately 1.30pm on 8 February 2009, I evacuated from Kinglake with Cris and Lachlan. Michael had already left on the first bus out – he helped to take care of some children who were very distraught. Allan and Cheryl stayed at their house, which was minimally impacted by the fire and fit to live in. My family hitched a ride with a young woman who said she would be able to drive out towards Whittlesea if she had company. Our dog was in the back.
  63. The drive to Whittlesea was slow and very difficult. We passed horrible car wrecks. I was frightened to look inside the cars too closely. We passed a large, dead horse on the road. I was in the front of the car so I asked Cris to keep covering Lachlan's eyes when we approached any distressing scene.
  64. We arrived at Whittlesea at around 2.00pm. Our families were there waiting for us. We all hugged and cried. I was ushered to see a paramedic about my knee. Meanwhile, Cris was outside talking to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It hit me very hard at that moment. I thought that things must have been bad if he was there.
  65. Cris then went to fill out some emergency forms and his parents took us to their home in Chirnside Park. I got up a lot through the night and needed to listen to the ongoing fire reports on the radio.
  66. A few days after the fire, Cris and I were permitted to return to our property to inspect the damage and we took some photos of what was left of the house – copies of these photos are attached to this statement and marked VJR-3. My knees did not stop knocking together for nearly two weeks after the fire. I was numb, but grateful and amazed that we had survived. We were lost, afraid and in shock as we began to try and piece together our new life.

Lachlan's Autism

  1. When he was younger, Lachlan was selectively mute at times, and not able to express himself or communicate his needs. It was difficult for him to be integrated into kindergarten and school environments because people didn't know what he wanted and he didn't know how to ask for it. He has received a lot of treatment and therapy, so now he can articulate fairly well and is quite confident in his own environment. As long as he has his routine (Lego, Nintendo, Harry Potter books, etc) he is okay.
  2. Anything that is a little bit spontaneous or unpredictable can make Lachlan feel very, very anxious. I knew that he was absolutely terrified throughout the time that Cris and I were trying to fight the fire on 7 February 2009. Lachlan just rocked and rocked quite violently all afternoon, which he doesn't do unless he is really distressed or upset.
  3. Despite his Autism, I think Lachlan coped very well on 7 February 2009. He did what he was told to do and tried to be as brave as he could be. Cris and I kept him updated on what was happening with the fire as it unfolded. We spoke calmly and clearly and talked things through with him constantly so that he would not panic. He has just been an amazing little boy considering everything he has had to deal with.
  4. He has also dealt with the aftermath very well. I spoke to his psychologist and asked what we should do to help Lachlan recover. The psychologist suggested getting Lachlan back into a routine quickly. So we put out the call for pre-loved Lego so that we could keep him occupied with something familiar and we tried to keep Lachlan away from the media. He has had a few nightmares but he is coping fairly well.

My involvement in the community

  1. Since moving to Kinglake ten years ago, I have been actively involved with the community. Not long after moving there, I noticed that people in the area kept to themselves. There weren't many community organisations. I also noticed that there was a lot of disadvantage and serious gaps in the social services which were available to local people. Speaking for myself, there was no-one there to support me in caring for Lachlan and meeting his special needs. With the assistance of Carers Victoria, I started up a carers' support group in the area which meets monthly. Through this, I became more aware of how we could positively advocate and propose community-based solutions to community needs. In doing this work, I have lobbied to all levels of Government and anyone else that would listen to us.
  2. Being a nurse, I have also worked with a lot of people in the community who are involved in health and well-being. Since the fires, I have continued to work alongside health care professional and psychologists in Kinglake (for example, volunteering at the temporary GP clinic) to assist people in dealing with the physical and psychological impacts of the bushfires. From carrying out this work, I have realised that full recovery for the people in our community will take a very long time. Our community is pretty stuffed.
  3. I have noticed that people found it particularly hard to cope through the 2009 winter. Winters are difficult in the Kinglake area at the best of times. In 2009, once the Army had left the area in about April, there was quite a bit of anxiety in the community about not being supported effectively throughout the winter. A lot of people have not coped very well. It has been pretty tough for a lot of the men who were very involved in the emergency phase and the immediate aftermath. Once the emergency work was over and winter hit, the reality of the fires sunk in and I think that a lot of these men felt very lost and alone.
  4. Since moving to Eltham, I have had a lot of people from the Kinglake community come to see me, seeking support and assistance in the recovery process, including friends, associates and people who knew me as someone who was quite involved in the Kinglake community prior to the fire. These people have either not had case workers or have not had satisfactory experiences with the case workers who were appointed to them.
  5. In addition to listening to them, I have passed on a lot of information to people about how to go about claiming insurance, rebuilding, and making claims with the compensation fund. I have been able to be a sort of referral service for information and a point of contact for people in the community.

My family's future

  1. Cris and I are unsure about whether we will return to Kinglake and rebuild. Some days we are really adamant about going back because we really miss our home, friends and community. We feel quite displaced in Eltham. However, the thought of returning is also daunting.
  2. Following the fires, I feel as if I have lost my sense of belonging. Cris and I, along with a lot of other people in the Kinglake Ranges area, had invested a lot of ourselves in leading a challenging but independent and self-sufficient life in the area. Now we are dependent on other people to assist us to rebuild our lives up there, if we choose to rebuild.
  3. Personally, I am blessed with a strong disposition and have been holding up mostly. I have my "blue" days but am yet to have my own "breakdown". I know it's coming and I know it will be hard, but I also know it is inevitable and a normal part of the recovery process. For now, I experience a wide range of human emotion on a daily basis. I am exhausted, I feel despair and dismay every day and I have immense trouble thinking about the future. I've noticed myself become impatient and intolerant and this is something very foreign to me and I don't like it. I'm sick and tired of dealing with bureaucracy, paper work and processes. I hear my friend, Suzanne Hyde, who perished in the fires. I hear her voice and I hear her screams – often. I worry about my husband and my children. I miss my community, my home, my garden and my farm animals.
  4. I believe our lives will never be the same. Some of the survivors will recover to some extent and some sadly will never recover. This experience has changed me. People who are close to me and know me well sense this. I am now a bushfire-affected person, labelled as a "victim" or "survivor". I like to think of myself as simply one of the lucky ones and somebody who lived to tell the tale.

VICKI JANE RUHR



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