Chaplain likens Australian wildfires to 'inland tsunami'
Healesville, Australia (AFP) Feb 10, 2009
Australian chaplain Russell Hildebrandt has counselled hundreds of people through fires, floods and the death of loved ones, but says the country's recent wildfires were unparalleled.
"This was truly an inland tsunami," said Hildebrandt, a chaplain from the Healesville relief centre, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) northeast of Australia's second largest city Melbourne.
"It's just come in, swept through everything in its path and killed hundreds of people, who were caught completely unawares."
"This is the worst this country's ever seen, it's terrible the things people have gone through," he told AFP.
Since the devastating fires hit on Saturday, Hildebrandt said he had talked dozens of survivors and evacuees through a range of emotions -- loss, fear, anger.
"You name it, I've heard everything," he said, speaking at a police roadblock just two kilometres from where the fires raged.
"Down the road here there was a body, just lying on the road. Police didn't know how it got there, declared it a crime scene. Somebody had obviously tried to outrun the fire and it caught them."
"There were other people who wanted to drive through the fire and got caught on falling trees," he added, struggling to contain his emotion.
Healesville remained on high alert Tuesday, with gusting winds showering the town with burning embers from large fires in a nearby mountain range.
Geoff Stewart led a strike team into the Yarra Ranges to the east to extinguish a fire threatening homes and a school campsite.
He said conditions were unpredictable -- some of the worst he had seen in his 35 years as a firefighter, including the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires that claimed 75 lives.
"I was in the Ash Wednesday fires and this ... I would just call it a blast furnace that went through so fast nobody and nothing could stop it," he said, wiping back tears.
"It surprised the hell out of me, I can tell you," he told AFP at the fire containment line.
A pall of smoke choked the entire region, with tree stumps and scorched paddocks still smouldering from fires days earlier.
Wineries throughout the nearby Yarra Valley were scorched, with whole vineyards reduced to ash. It was a cruel blow for an industry already crippled by drought and a once-in-a-century heatwave.
De Bortoli, one of the region's largest and best known vintners, was not spared. On Saturday night, staff watched as the firestorm raged across neighbouring properties, searing the vines.
Armed with hoses, they fought back the flames, said a manager, who didn't wish to be named.
"We got prepared really quickly with some really dedicated staff, people who really got into it," he said.
"The most amazing story to come out of all of this is the camaraderie, people pulling together."
Tears in his eyes, Hildebrandt agreed. "The support's overwhelming," he said, of the millions of dollars in donations and clothes, food and personal effects which had flooded the relief centre from surrounding towns.
"It's moments like this, when you really need support, encouragement and help, that Australians really come through."
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