Book review: Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland

by Adrian Hyland
Text, 2011

Kinglake-350 is a non-fiction book about the most terrible bush fire in Australia’s history, on 7 February 2009, in the state of Victoria. Unlike other accounts of natural disasters or other real events, Kinglake-350 is as riveting as any novel could be, which is not surprising given that the author is the superbly talented writer Adrian Hyland.

The first half of the book tells the story of the fire from the point of view of many of the inhabitants of this small community north and slightly east of Melbourne. The author has done his research thoroughly, and his approach provides the book with an immediacy that, in the hands of a writer of this calibre, pulls in the reader as we follow the activities of individual local police, community fire-service volunteers, and other inhabitants as they gradually come to appreciate the magnitude of the threat racing towards them. The lack of warning from the authorities is shocking, as people had little if any time to put into place their fire-protection policies or to flee the region, leading to a much higher death count than would otherwise have been the case, in all likelihood. This part of the book is accompanied by several maps to illustrate the geography of the area and the movement of the various infernos that swept across it; unfortunately in the Kindle e-book I read one cannot magnify these maps into legibility, but even so they were useful in orienting me to the path of the fires and why people could not escape down the few mountain roads.

Gradually, the author intersperses his narrative with scientific descriptions: an explanation for what we know of global climate patterns and their origin; how “natural” fires begin and propagate; the eucalyptus and other vegetation; the psychology and biological response of people faced with horrific dangers; and the relationship of humans with their environment – including why so many people are arsonists. All these sections are gripping; the explanations are admirably clear and comprehensible, unlike many a scientific text – perhaps to me the most fascinating section concerned the contrast between the Aboriginal and the settler-Australians’ relationship with fire and how the different cultures use it to control potentially dangerous natural outbreaks. At the same time, there is immense tension in the story of the Kinglake fires, as we have come to know the cast of characters (particularly Roger Wood, the policeman whose call sign Kinglake-350 provides the title of the book and who is its, for want of a better word, hero) and are desperate to know whether they will survive.

Later, after the worst of the blasts are over but while fires still rage, there are many acts of individual heroism as people are rescued from their houses and cars, as they are treated in a makeshift medical centre, and so on. There were more than a few times that I had tears in my eyes as I was reading.

Finally, the last part of the book summarises the management of the crisis, which was found to be severely lacking from “on high”. Hyland is not interested in assigning blame, however, but in measured (yet occasionally poetic) terms he looks holistically at the causes of this awful disaster. We don’t really have the mechanisms necessary in our society to take the kind of responsibility that can help to ameliorate the conditions that lead to out-of-control environmental catastrophes – and we certainly don’t know enough about the natural processes to be able to predict them with sufficient accuracy. But there are things that could be done – for example the confused response and failed communications when the 2009 fires first started were responsible for much – but more than this, we need to be more connected to the natural world and to live our lives, whether in small or large communities, in awareness that we do not control it. The author puts these arguments very well, while at the same time conveying the lack of process or structure that could make this possible on any enduring, large scale.

Kinglake-350 is a wonderful book, not just as a compulsive 360-degree account of this particular disaster, but in what it says about dealing with any similar incident – floods, tsunamis, volcanoes or earthquakes. The confusion on the part of those responsible for managing or governing from remote locations is a common theme in many of these recent disasters, as are accounts of bravery of those “on the ground”. If everyone read this book then this would be one small step in advancing our understanding of the need to take more collective responsibility for the world we live in, rather than assuming we are the masters of it.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book as part of an Amazon promotion.

Bernadette’s review of this book at Reactions to Reading – which made me want to read it. Other reviews: Aust Crime Fiction (calls the book “mandatory reading”), All the Books I Can Read and The Australian.

Excellent interview with the author about this book and the events described in it, by Meg Mundell.

Wikipedia on the “Black Saturday” bushfires, which spread over 4,500 square km. There were 173 fatalities and 414 serious injuries.

About the book at the Australian publisher’s website (includes an extract and some excerpts from reviews).

My reviews of Adrian Hyland’s two novels: Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road.

17 thoughts on “Book review: Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland

  1. What a fantastic review Maxine. Outstanding.

    One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of news-based non-fiction is that I fear it will wallow in the disaster and the suffering without really adding anything to our collective understanding. But Adrian didn’t let me down, offering much knowledge as well as a sensitive exploration of the impact of the day. I think of the book often – especially this week as we’ve had a series of fires set locally by arsonists (fortunately all have been brought under control very quickly). And living here you cant help but worry about our relationship to the environment, and how we really dont ‘get it’.

    • Thanks, Berndadette. I agree, many non-fiction books are too dry or sensationalistic – this one is neither, it is a calm book yet evokes very strong emotion on the part of the reader. And, by not being sensationalistic or in joining various “blame choruses”, it makes the key point about collective responsibility all the more powerfully. (Not that, sadly, there is any likelihood of this happening in our globalised, information-overloaded, society where everyone is bogged down in details and governance systems cannot therefore see wood for trees— add in stupid health&safety, etc, regulations to the mix and it’s even worse, eg in the UK a fire officer was ordered by his boss not to go down a pothole to rescue someone who had fallen down it, because of a safety at work directive, and there have been occasions where police have not rescued people being threatened by guns in domestic disputes for similar reasons).

      No, as a society, we don’t get it, you are right.

      • I know how awesome this book is from Bernadette’s review. I love a disaster true account anytime. This one sounds up my alley. Over in the UK, I agree it is Health & Safety gone mad. I saw pictures of the London Loot last summer where the riot police could only look on while the youngsters damage private properties and loot the shops.

  2. I think people fail to understand just how fragile our civilization is when faced by natural and man made disasters. I have never forgotten the very frightening experience of spending the night on a hill near Bath with the flood water rising minute by minute. We were on our way to my degree ceremony in Bristol, and in the morning we learned that only a few miles away people had drowned.
    Maxine, thanks for this superb review.

  3. Sounds like a great book Maxine. I see forest fires regularly in Greece in summer and I find them very frightening even from a distance. I have no idea how I would feel being so close to one. This book is definitely on my wish list because of the author/subject combination.

  4. Maxine – A superb review! Thank you. Coming up very soon on my TBR, actually. Adrian Hyland is such an outstanding writer!

  5. It sounds like an excellent book, and that Adrian Hyland, once again, doesn’t disappoint.
    I’ll skip it. There was a horrendous fire in the building next door to mine in the summer of 2010. My side of the building had to evacuate. A 92-year-old woman died, and one woman was hospitalized. The fire destroyed two apartments and that entire side of the building was uninhabited until very recently.
    It is very humbling to see a fire like this and so close.
    There have been a lot of fires in this area, which have destroyed entire houses or apartment buildings.
    I take my hat off to fire fighters, who put their lives on the line constantly.
    From my perspective of three fires in my building since I’ve been here and the awful one next door, I have nothing but respect for them.

  6. My father is a volunteer fire-fighter (he recently got an award for 25 years service) and was heavily involved in fighting the fires on that fateful day (not the Kinglake one, but ones in the south and east of the state). I have quite a lot of photographs he emailed me during that time and they are awesome in their beauty and terror. When you grow up in rural Australia the bushfire threat is something you have to deal with — when I was a child we were evacuated twice, but fortunately the fires were put out before they reached our home. And as a rural news reporter I spent a lot of time reporting on these kinds of disasters. But “Black Saturday” in 2009 seems to have been exceptionally ferocious. I’m intrigued by this book: half of me is desparate to read it, the other half knows I will find it far too upsetting. Thanks for your review, Maxine.

    • Thanks for telling your story, Kim. Unfortunately the Kindle version seems to have been removed from Amazon UK, and there never was a print version available here, so I think to read it now you’d need to be in Australia, or have access to books published there, as you may well have.

      • Update, the book is now available again on Kindle (Amazon UK and US), unfortunately expensive (£15.59 in the UK).

  7. What every review of this book does not understand is that the heroes of the fires is the ordinary people who did extraordinary things on that day saving many lives. They received no awards or recognition. Instead we keep talking about these police as heroes even when they left behind many people at Kinglake West not telling them what was happening.

    • Thanks for your comment, much appreciated. The book certainly makes your point clearly. From my review above: “here are many acts of individual heroism as people are rescued from their houses and cars, as they are treated in a makeshift medical centre, and so on”. In a review, one cannot cover every aspect of a book but I hope I did not give the impression you suggest. Hyland uses Roger Wood as a focus point, but there is no implication here or in his book that he was the only “hero” of that day & days, there were many as you write. And the criticism of the police is clear in the book (and I hope in my review).

      In the current disaster involving an Italian cruise ship, the point is repeatedly made that if the crew had looked out of the window instead of relying on instruments and screens, they would have been able to avert the disaster. This point is made clearly by Hyland at the start of the book – that the police did not issue warnings because their instruments weren’t telling them the correct information as it hadn’t been programmed in further up the line, etc. Perhaps I should have made this specific point in my review. In any event, my apologies to you and your fellow-residents if I created any wrong impression, which was unintentional.

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  10. Thanks for your excellent review, Maxine (just catching up after a bit of a hectic time). This sounds like an outstanding book, and I’m keen to get hold of it somehow – though hopefully not at quite as high a price as its current listing!

    • Thanks, Mrs P. At the moment it does rather fall into the “birthday coming up, generous rich relative/friend” category. Let’s hope the price gets more reasonable with time.

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