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Feature

Five minutes and it's fire

Kim Cain

Five minutes is a long time in the life of a bushfire, even if it has burnt for hours before it arrives at your house.

Five minutes was all it took for the Kilmore fire to turn from a fire on a ridge heading in one direction, to suddenly threaten to raze the home of farmers ‘Pip’ (Philip) and Jenny Easton of Baynton on February 7, Victoria’s ‘Black Saturday’.

Pip and Jenny, along with their son – who scrambled home with just four minutes to spare – fought off that blaze, only to see major tracts of their land reduced to charcoal and ash.

On that oven of an afternoon Pip said he was up on a small hill behind their property, ‘Balkebah’, about 40 kms from Kilmore and 20 kms from Kyneton, looking at the fire burn across a ridge miles away.

“Suddenly the wind changed and within five minutes it was here,” he says looking across the now blackened valley.

In that time it had crossed several paddocks, jumped the road and was blazing up the slope, through a tree plantation and licking the veranda of their home.

Pip and his son ran from one side of the house to the other putting out the fire as best they could.

Each time radiant heat filled their lungs, they would beat a retreat to the other side of the house; gulp some fresh air then race back to the fire front to tackle the flames.

In the end they saved their home.

Both Pip and Jenny, who are members of Kilmore Uniting Church, count themselves lucky, although they say they were never afraid for their lives.

“The worst part was waiting,” says Jenny, who took shelter in a steel shed near the house. “I could hear it roar like a train through the big gums over the road and then silence, but I knew it was coming.

“I just had to wait …it was terrifying.”

A few days later they survey the scene: a burnt out trampoline frame sits skewiff in a blackened front yard, fruit on the vine stewed in their own juice by the radiant heat. A blackened fence post less than a meter from the house and singed moss on the stone veranda tell how close they came to losing their family home.

Now, a trickle of visitors are dropping by with cakes and cordial and good cheer – just to say they care.

The Eastons survived, but have a big rebuilding job ahead – fences gone, most of a plantation lost, stock losses, loss of future production. Are they glum? Not really.  Pip says, “We are fine. Others have had a worse experience. We are more thinking more of them…”

BAYNTON UNITING CHURCH IN ASHES

Further down Sidonia Road, about two kilometres past the Easton farm, the Baynton Uniting Church lies in ashes.

Stark, steel A-frame roof girders belie its former shape as a church amidst a tangle of galvanised iron, melted glass and burnt timbers.

A scorched sign, ‘Baynton Presbyterian Church’ – complete with a large Uniting Church logo – tell of its original and latter day history.

The little concrete brick church, opened on Sunday March 10, 1963 is gone.

It is the only Uniting Church destroyed in Victoria in the Black Saturday fires. But it is a loss to the community.

The now-burnt church replaced a 1920′s building, but the history of the faith community goes back to 1876

Says Pip Elston, who was married in the tiny church: “It’s only a small church but it meant a lot to the community. And although we are not many, it has been important to us and it is a loss.”

As a group of CFA volunteers inspects the hulk of the church, it is commented that it was the trees out the front of the church that ensured it “didn’t have a fighting chance to survive” the ravages of the bushfire.

Long-time church stalwart, Mrs Anita Stewart, is sitting in the kitchen of her farmhouse just a few burnt miles up the road.

She’s is looking though a myriad of photographs of the once light-filled church. They are mainly wedding snaps.

Her father, she says, made the concrete bricks that are the only standing element of the church.

She points to an old history of the church typed out on yellowing foolscap paper.

A note on the page says that those tress – now nothing but dead and blackened skeletons of life set against the razed church – were Cypress planted in 1887.

Says, Mrs Stewart: “It’s church that’s always been run by locals.” A sentiment supported by Pip, who recalls how the three or four services held there each year (mostly around Christmas and Easter) attracted about forty people of all ages: “We came from all denominations, Catholic, Baptist, Uniting, it didn’t matter. They were important gatherings and a real bringing together of the community.”

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