Heartbreak at home as Aussies return after fires

KINGLAKE, Australia (AP) -- A cast-iron potbellied stove stood on what used to be the verandah of Peter Denson's home, the only thing left intact after a ferocious wildfire destroyed most of this wooded township.

The uninsured 58-year-old carpenter stepped onto a piece of his wall, which crunched and gave way, and pointed to where his bed had been, where his refrigerator had sat, where his computer once was.

His beloved Harley-Davidson was a burned-out shell under a crumpled shed. He was left with only his car and the clothes on his back.

Faced with the daunting prospect of rebuilding, he asked: "Where do you start? Where do you start?"

Police allowed hundreds of homeowners to return to their towns Wednesday for the first time since weekend wildfires - driven by 60 mph winds and 115-degree temperatures - spread quickly through drought-dry forests and brush in southeastern Australia. The fires killed 181 people - authorities say the death toll will exceed 200 - and destroyed more than 1,000 houses. More than 5,000 are homeless.

Many of Denson's neighbors in Kinglake, 70 miles north of Melbourne, returned to similar scenes of utter devastation and loss. Not a single house remained standing on his street, now a smoky, silent moonscape of blackened tree trunks and charred earth.

A chimney poked out of a pile of rubble where a neighbor's house had stood. Blue-and-white checkered police tape cordoned off an area where bones had been found. A mailbox or two was still upright. A solitary swing set stood idle in a yard.

Denson and his daughter, Amberley, drove slowly up the hill to Kinglake, where he has lived for 30 years and where his daughter grew up. Their progress was slow because emergency workers were restoring power lines and cutting down trees that appeared ready to fall.

"It's eerie. It's like a movie," Amberley said as they drove through the desolate town that still smells of acrid smoke. "It looks completely different up here."

Here and there she pointed out a landmark - "My kindergarten is gone. Oh no, the pizza place!" - or a friend's home. They waved as they passed familiar faces and wondered aloud which neighbors had survived.

At the Kinglake Community Center, the township reunited after days cut off from each other due to road closures. Friends embraced, confirmed the safety of those not there, and wept for those killed - at least 39 in the town, by the latest count.

Denson was away from home on Saturday afternoon when he received a phone call about the approaching fire.

"We were looking at the sky on the horizon and thought, 'This looks pretty freaky,'" Denson recalled. "The sun went red - the smoke went in front of the sun - and it was just this red ball."

Denson had driven to the home of his son, Joel, since his own house appeared to be in the path of the flames. Joel's neighborhood was largely cleared of trees, and he was home with his 3-year-old son, Beau.

Denson's other son, Paul, soon arrived with his partner, fleeing a blaze that roared down their wooded street.

Joel's wife, Sonia Dukic, soon came home from working at the nearby grocery store, where a frenzied scene had erupted when residents saw smoke and flames bearing down on the town. Dukic said she wove her way through a traffic jam of nearly 100 cars to get home, where she began hurriedly packing a suitcase to flee town.

But with reports of fire all around them, the extended family decided instead to stay, tense and fearful. Looking out a back window, Dukic saw what she thought was a fire engine approaching through the trees.

"It turned out to be the bits of flame I could see through the smoke," she said. Soon a wall of fire was at the treeline at the back of their property, about 50 yards from the house.

With a neighbor, the adults spent the next few hours filling buckets with water and racing to the fence, soaking the property line.

When the fire eased and they felt the house was safe, they all headed to the fire station to take shelter for the rest of the night. On Sunday they took a convoy out of town, not returning until the road reopened Wednesday.

Amberley had been staying with her mother, Denson's ex-wife, Karen, fearing for their family's safety and offering up prayers for them.

"There was a knock on my door on Sunday afternoon, and there they all were, black-faced and smelling like smoke," she said. "It was the best sight I'd ever seen."

The Densons admit they were lucky.

Each of them knows someone who died. On Paul Denson's street, it is believed that at least 20 people were killed. Dukic last saw a 21-year-old fellow employee at the grocery store who said she was leaving to see if neighbors needed help saving their horses; the woman and her sister died in that effort.

Days later, even little Beau remembers the terror of that night. "Smoke coming," he says, pointing to the trees behind his house.

Thousands of mostly volunteer firefighters were still battling more than a dozen fires across the state. Weather conditions were cool, but gusting winds constantly threatened efforts to get them under control. Forecasters said temperatures could rise again by the weekend.

At Denson's home, his daughter searched for any usable housewares in the debris and turned up only a coffee mug, a large clay vase and a ceramic duck ornament.

Also discovered near the ruined Harley was a beer bottle - twisted and melted by the inferno.

The find brought a smile to Denson's weathered face for the first time Wednesday, and he said he would keep odd souvenir and display it in his next home.

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