Jason Lynn's Story
A love story
It was closing in on sunset on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when Jason Lynn felt the distinctive texture of a rigger's glove on his face. 'You've made it this far so you'lll be right. We'll get you out.' The words, calm and professional, from Tim Dawkins came two hours after Jason and his wife Ruth had parted company at 3.30 that afternoon. Delirious and weak from an hour spent fighting the fire and another hour lying in a dam bombarded by ash and embers, the arrival of the CFA was a godsend.
The last time Jason had spoken to anyone from the CFA was when a Land Cruiser carrying a man and a woman roared up his driveway and within seconds was gone again. The look on the face of the CFA volunteer, says Jason, still haunts him. Asked what he was doing and whether he had a fire plan, Jason's answer was unequivocal. I'm staying,' he told them. By now Ruth and the children, 5-year-old Joshua and 3-year-old Julia, were four kilometres away, weaving through the smoke and mayhem on the Whittlesea road. There'd been no time for kisses as Jason tossed a collection of photo albums in the tray of the Hilux and Ruth bundled the children into the back seat. In any case, the departure had been tense.
Ruth had pleaded with her husband to let her go. Believing the fire was now too close for her to be on the road, he wanted her to stay. 'If you really think you should go, then go now.' It's unlikely Jason Lynn will ever utter a set of words as prophetic as those, or that a simple 'thanks' from his wife will ever have as much meaning. Had Ruth lost that brief battle of wills, the whole family would surely have gone the way of next-door neighbours Brian and Moiree Naylor. Brian was the last person Ruth Lynn spoke to as she made her escape. The legendary former Channel Nine newsreader was in his convertible Mazda, roof down, having seen his daughter-in-law off safely from her home across the road, when Ruth advised him to leave. What chance did a 77-year-old man have against such an inferno, she asks.
It was only when Ruth hit the Whittlesea road that the real nature of the impending catastrophe became evident. Struck by panic, a succession of cars had run amok, slamming into trees and oncoming traffic as they disappeared in the smoke and fires fanned by a change in the direction of the wind. At home there was little time for Jason to ponder the plight of his wife and children. By now the smell of eucalyptus oil was everywhere and the noise of fires crashing through the forests was simply deafening. Yet in the moments before the fire unleashed itself on the property, all was quiet and eerily calm. Then suddenly, like a cavalry that had lain in wait for the command to destroy an unsuspecting enemy, it arrived in a fury.
With his 6 horsepower fire pump feverishly powering dam water through the 36 metre hose that stood between him and oblivion, Jason shot water at the embers and fiery missiles. For the next 30 minutes he defended the house, the house he and his late father had lovingly built from western red cedar and Oregon. By the time the stables and hay shed exploded, it was as dark as night, the flashes of red flame offering him a momentary glimpse of the artifacts he'd fought to protect.
The more he fought, the worse it became. Tangled in hoses, he watched as the house came under even more intense attack from embers and flames. The family home with all its memories, not least the furniture, handbuilt by his dad, and the maintenance shed that housed the handmade tools his dad had given him before he died. It was saving these treasures, rather than saving his life, that had preoccupied him as the flames coursed across the rooftops. 'Save the house and save my life. I suppose that's what I thought,' he says.
There was, however, one other less romantic reason, one the Royal Commission will surely explore that drove people to risk their lives. Like many bushfire victims Jason was under-insured. With the sheds, the tools and the three cars uninsured, this was a fire that was always going to cost him money. It's surely a reason why some people leave when others stay.
As the fire marched across the garden beds around the house, the battle had become chaotic. By now the fire pump had exploded into flames and the garden hoses with their stream of bore water had melted, leaving man's last resort in cases of fire, buckets, to keep him and the struggle alive. He was engaged in the forlorn process of throwing buckets of water from the kids' inflatable swimming pool onto the house when the decking collapsed, sending him sprawling. No sooner was he on his feet than the windows started smashing. All he could do now was retreat to the machinery shed. En route he jumped into the ute, only to discover the seat was so hot he had to hang out of the door to safely get it into the shed.
With the ute locked away, Jason climbed a ladder and began pouring water over the roof and walls of his last prize, the machinery shed. From here he watched as the house exploded, his dogs started yelping and the horn on the Toyota began a wail that would only end when the car burst into flames. As if on cue, gas cylinders began exploding like skyrockets at a carnival. Perched some 15 feet above the ground, a speck of life in a maelstrom of black smoke, Jason Lynn had reached his Waterloo. For the first time in nearly an hour, he genuinely thought he was about to die.
As if to confirm that death was nigh, a drum of methanol exploded in the shed, sending Jason careering towards the ground clinging to the broken spouting. It could have been a scene from a James Bond movie. 'It was so dark I couldn't see the ground, but I kind of hit it running.By now, so charred was his facemask, his lungs were heaving and he may as well have been blind for he could not see a thing. About 20 metres from the shed he became entangled in a wire fence and, as much as wanted to make it to the dam, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen had taken its toll.
Those who believe God's work is dispensed through guardian angels and miracles will find in what happened next an affirmation of faith. Those with a more secular view of the world will see it as a testament to man's fundamental goodness. Ten minutes before Ruth Lynn made her escape, electrical contractor Ziad Ghobril had rung his employee and offered some advice as to the state of the fires. 'Don't be stupid,' he replied when Jason said he intended to stay and fight. At around 4.30 Ziad was on the phone again. This time he would go as close to saving Jason's life as anyone ever will. Lying on the parched ground, his head swirling, the idea of calling someone was a million miles from Jason's thoughts. Then, miraculously, as he lay there, still and exhausted, the vibrating mobile awoke him to life in the outside world.
For more than an hour he'd been so engrossed in private war he'd not heard Ziad's frantic attempts to have him answer the mobile. Now, with his friend's words in his ear, Jason raised himself from the dirt and staggered on towards a dam he could not see but knew was some 50 metres away. At the dam he found enough strength to lower his body, feet first, into the water, place his head on the bank and draw his black leather hat over his head. With the phone pressed against his face he listened as Ziad put his rescue plan into operation. 'Tell Mum and my wife and kids that I love them,' Jason told him, believing finally that he was going to die.
Inside the Whittlesea fire station it was chaotic and surreal when Ziad arrived. 'We need to get my friend. He's alive in a dam,' he said. As much as his pleas were met with due concern, there was nothing, said the officer, that could be done at that moment. Jason Lynn however had not been forgotten. A passionate ETU member and occasional churchgoer, his friends are many and varied. Bethany Lepp, daughter of Whittlesea pastor Shane Lepp, was providing sandwiches when she overheard Jason's story. Within a short time her father too was in the fire station talking his friend into staying alive. It is a conversation about which Jason has no memory.
It was too smoky for helicopters and, with power lines dangerously close, the only way out for Jason was by car. As the men from the CFA lifted him on to a woollen blanket and placed him in the back of their ute, he vomited violently. As the car wound its way towards Whittlesea, the sound of men talking was a welcome relief from the loneliness of the hours spent inside the inferno. Yet all he could think about was his wife and children.
It was still light when he arrived at the Whittlesea showgrounds. In the rescue centre, the sound of people screaming and the hysteria as families recounted stories of their escape or the disaster that had befallen friends was only drowned out by the arrival and departure of helicopters. It was eventually decided that Jason would be taken to the Northern Hospital. He'd still not heard a word about his family. Sedated on morphine he tried to erase the memories but all he could think about was his family. 'I was thinking about Ruth when Mum arrived. When I told her I'd lost everything she just touched my face and told me it wasn't my time'. It's the one part of the story that brings him to tears.
Ruth Lynn too had lost a lifetime of memories when her house was destroyed. A trained photographer, she'd choreographed the wedding photos taken at Montsalvat, and now they were gone. And still, as her husband lay in hospital, he had no idea of the ordeal she'd endured and how when confronted by flames she says 'rose from the ground and reached the sky' she had calmly U-turned and driven on to Yea.
After the power went off in the Yea caravan park around 5.30 pm Ruth had driven to Seymour to buy fish and chips. Thwarted by smoke on the return trip she drove to Seymour where she told her story to the local CFA. From here she drove to Nagambie and after collapsing in the driveway of the caravan park was taken in by the proprietor. Ruth says that the moment she saw the flames on the Whittlesea road she was convinced her husband had no hope. With two children to protect, she'd not been afforded the chance to even shed a tear for the man she most certainly believed was dead.
'Sorry, it's all gone. Everything's gone.' Protected from the images that were passing across the TV screens, Jason had no idea of the enormity of the tragedy when he finally spoke to Ruth on the phone. Only later would he discover the fate of the Naylors and learn that another neighbour had lost his wife and two children to the fire before fleeing with his 18-month-old child in his arms. The baby died and the father suffered life-threatening burns.
Yet Jason's words remain emblematic of the questions raised by the fires. What he'd done was what so many men believe is their ordained role in life. Sometimes it isn't always so easy being a man. From the deadliest of wars to the challenges of nature there will always be men prepared to undertake the journey Jason Lynn mapped out for himself when his wife and family left Kinglake on Black Saturday. He was one of the lucky ones. He says he'll rebuild in Kinglake. As to how that, he says, lies in the hands of the Royal Commission.
Lessons from the bushfires
From the stay-or-go policy to the capacity of homes to withstand firestorms of the kind Victoria experienced on Saturday 7 February to the significance of global warming, the people of Victoria are beginning to ask questions.
A fearful sight
As Firefighters union secretary Peter Marshall said in Thursday 12 February's (2009) Age, it isn't about 'the blame game'. Nevertheless the questions need to be asked.
"To stay is not an option". That's what Marisa Robbins told the Age newspaper should have been the instructions to her parents.
Those parents, Lloyd and Mary Martin died defending their home of 30 years in Humevale near Kinglake West.
Peter Marshall is right to raise the question of the nexus between global warming and the severity of those bushfires. His views can be found via the following link:
Time to evacuate?
Yet even without global warming the same questions must still be answered. And not surprisingly, those questions are beginning to find their way into the public discussions and on to the lips of politicians. And, as irony would have it, trees and undergrowth density too will be on the agenda.
Peter Marshall should also be commended for having the political courage to ask whether the terms of reference of the Royal Commission will be broad enough and for reminding people that the last thing we want is a whitewash. Too often throughout history Royal Commissions have done no more than offer findings that serve a government's interests. Many people believe all wasn't right in the way we prepared for this bushfire. The Royal Commission needs to resolve that question.
One blogger’s view
Whilst this is a disaster of tremendous proportions, the facts are that the “stay, prepare and defend” stance doesn’t work. The only definitive study ever done on this was done in 2007 on the Hobart fires of 1967. Of the 64 fatalities 54 died either defending their homes, sheltering in their homes or leaving well after being told to evacuate. NSW is the only State with enforced evacuation policy and statistically has the lowest number of bushfire fatalities in Australia. This is a time for empathy not blame but, after the poor souls who lived through this disaster are resettled perhaps the rest of the country needs to have a look at forced evacuation policy and towns be given safe evacuation areas.