HomeNewsBlack Saturday: What really happened in Kinglake township

Black Saturday: What really happened in Kinglake township


Today we remember the 173 people who perished on Black Saturday, February 7, 2009 and over 400 people with serious injuries -some of whom will never recover- from Australia’s worst natural disaster.

Black Saturday arrives at Robertson Rd, 7:02pm, February 7, 2009. PHOTO: Ashley Geelan

Not including those that did, have and still are having mental health issues.

Those that went through it, whether as a resident, visitor or CFA volunteer their lives changed forever that day and would never be the same again.

An upside -if there’s such a thing- of that fateful day is that it bought all of us who went through it, and were lucky enough to survive, much closer together and bonded a community together and created many close friendships.

At 3:11pm it was 44.6 degrees Celcius and humidity had dropped to 17 per cent.

At 4:41pm we recorded a rarely-heard mayday call and posted to Facebook “Not that bad … well Whittlesea CFA just called mayday [on the two-way radio] a r [sic] trying to save their lives right now!”

Kinglake resident Kerry-Ann Wilcocks soon responded to the post with “What.” Thanks to the warning she and her children survived, despite losing their home.

At 4:44pm we posted to Facebook that “A Whittlesea tanker is burning around itself on Humevale Rd, so they must be trapped by fire, hence them calling ‘mayday.'” Access to the internet and power was lost at 4:46pm so an amateur radio connected to a car battery was used to continue communications.

As they say -and it still applies today worldwide- ‘When all else fails, [Amateur] Ham Radio Works,’ and Victorian (VK3) amateur radio operators of Australia’s WICEN continued to provide communications for over a week until Defence Force Signals from Watsonia (Simpson) Army Barracks took over.

A dual-band amateur radio was then used – as the two-way radio towers in Kinglake (Frank Thomson Reserve) that service Melbourne and the district’s radio and mobile phone communications failed – to keep the CFA and Police on the air, using the amateur radio equipment of Ashley Geelan.

As a mark of respect Kinglake Ranges News archived the photos and reports until today when we release to the public the photographs Ashley Geelan took whilst also fighting the fires, and the following days.

No other media outlet has these photographs as mainstream media and rural reporters didn’t turn up until after the fact late on Saturday evening or on Sunday, February 8.




The first signs of fire. Robertson Rd, looking north at 3:28pm, February 7, 2009. PHOTO: Ashley Geelan

We fought it. We lived it. We recorded it.

Kinglake Ranges News editor, and amateur ‘ham’ radio operator, Ashley Geelan VK3HAG, monitored police, fire and Victorian Government State Mobile Radio (SMR) whilst operating the Kinglake weather station and providing the community with weather and fire updates via Facebook, twitter, sms and several visits to the Kinglake Pub to warn locals and visitors.

The last hotel visit to warn was the fastest Geelan’s ever run and the hotel was closed immediately.

Sadly, some visitors that were forced to leave the hotel and drive home -trying to outrun the fire- after then publicans Craig & Sharon Lovik closed the hotel never made it home.

The reason the shops, hotel and western parts of Victoria and Robertson Roads survived was thanks to those of us who were left ‘on the hill’ and trapped in Kinglake.

All we had were fire pumps, some 38mm canvas fire hose and some rubber hoses (rubber fire hoses are useless once an ember lands on them) and used any tank water we could access.

Fortunately as a former teenage volunteer firefighter with Eltham CFA, Geelan had some skills and training that came in very handy on Black Saturday. (Usually-whilst trained-I operated the watchroom pre- ‘VicFire/Intergraph’ during call-outs at Eltham and rarely ‘jumped on a truck to firefight.’)

ABC Local Radio Melbourne (774kHz AM) as the designated emergency broadcaster didn’t even issue an on-air warning until several hours after the fire had passed. It’s why ABC Kinglake Ranges (94.5MHz FM) was quickly created and started broadcasting from the Kinglake Ranges Neighbourhood House, with Simon Rogers as presenter.

Colloquially known as the ‘Robertson Rd Crew’ Dereck Geelan (brother), Graeme Geelan (father), now Murrindindi Shire Councillor (Kinglake Ward) Leigh Dunscombe, Aaron Robertson, Rick Watts, Brett Walker, Jess Walker, Ron and several others who fought to save our homes, protect the women and children sheltering in the (then) CFA Station and Wombats Cafe (now the Kinglake Bakery) and ‘save our town.’

Similar things happened throughout the Kinglake Ranges, with off-duty Kinglake police officer Cameron Caine trying his best with a crew of Pheasant Creek and Kinglake West residents to save homes, buildings and lives at Kinglake West.

It should be noted that many Kinglake women wanted to help fight the fire, but the Robertson Rd crew wouldn’t allow it. Women and children first. Sent to the CFA shed or cafe with some of the Robertson Rd crew keeping the water flowing over the buildings.

The Robertson Rd crew stopped the fire at the eastern wall of Cr Dunscombe’s home as his eastern wall started ‘to melt’.

We then went on -and worked through the night- to save the Main St shops, Police Station, Mountain Monthly office and Kinglake Pub. His own home, the supermarket, hotel and police station is what Ashley Geelan worked -with the Robertson Rd crew- to save.

“A huge thank you to Ashley, Ron and the other community members who battled hard to save the Mountain Monthly (MM) offices [Robertson Rd] and house next door when the firestorm hit Kinglake on Saturday 7 February,” said the MM Board and Staff in their March 2009 edition following Black Saturday.

Black Saturday arrives in Kinglake township, 7:01pm, February 7, 2009. PHOTO: Ashley Geelan

The supermarket stock caught fire, we broke in through the rear entrance and put it out. The police station’s verandah poles had started to burn, this reporter put those fires out.

At approximately 11pm on Saturday evening, Ashley Geelan suffered a seizure and was later transported to the Northern Hospital before signing himself out the following morning and being given a lift to the Whittlesea road block.

Ashley Geelan then avoided the roadblock by using the side track to walk around the road block early morning on Sunday, February 8 and begun walking up the Whittlesea-Yea Rd when about half way to Kinglake West then Kinglake Football Club coach Michael ‘Mocca’ Egan stopped and picked Ashley Geelan up after driving through the Whittlesea roadblock.

Egan, wanting to get back to his family in Captains Creek Rd, apologised for only dropping Ashley Geelan off at the Extons Rd/Kinglake-Whittlesea Rd intersection.

“Sorry Asho, but I need to get home and see if my home is still there,” Egan said.

‘Mocca’ need not apologise.

The following day Geelan offered his home to anyone who needed somewhere to live with 16 people living in the lounge room it quickly became a mess hall. Others camped in the backyard. Geelan continued to accommodate people until the temporary village was built and accessible months later.

Photos: ©COPYRIGHT 2009 Ashley Geelan.

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Nexus Primary Health (Kinglake): 1300 773 352


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