Their kids play backyard cricket on burnt grass, metres from the home’s door. Everything’s black – kilometres of rolling hills that stretch from the raised verandah, all burnt. Everything except the house.
“It was 50-50 – a toss of the coin,” says one of the fathers, who didn’t want to be named, when describing how likely it was he would defend his property and get out alive.
“There was no way we were leaving. The kids and wives were off to a movie but us three guys were here … we had a plan and we executed it.”
“Every house on this street that the owners stayed to defend didn’t get burnt. Everyone who left now doesn’t have a home to come back to.”
That included neighbours, Peter Riley says, aged in their 80s, who lived without mobile communication and had decided to leave.
Deptford Road was one of the worst hit in the small town. Three properties were lost in a short stretch of road, as well as the Clifton Creek Primary School.
Some in the Clifton Creek area had returned to their homes by Wednesday morning.
They were still coming to terms with the damage, but were accustomed to the reality of bushfire risk.
“This is what happens – this is our life,” Mr Riley says.
He defended his property – including a cattle farm and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of excavation machinery – with his brother and nephews.
At about 9pm on Monday night, he saw enormous flames rising out of the nearby mountains.
“When the wind changed, I knew they were going to hit. I knew we were in trouble,” he says.
“In the gully, the flames were about 50 metres high and travelling up the hill to our place.”
Covered in ash and under “incredibly intense” heat, the men staved off the flames with their own CFA tanker.
The flames travelled around their house, into the front yard and across the street, destroying the home directly across the road from Mr Riley’s.
“The heat was just intense … if it was any hotter we would have had to back down,” he says.
While he got away with his life, home and his cows, Mr Riley’s shed on the Deptford Road was ruined. It included expensive machinery, a semi-trailer, and a work car – all crucial to his excavation business that does contract work for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
Clifton Creek’s population is about 300. Locals say the small school that serves much of the community, Clifton Creek Primary School, was a heart-wrenching loss.
Rebecca West says the school was crucial for her daughters, who require the one-on-one teaching the school provides.
On Wednesday, the school was thrown a lifeline.
The state government promised students would be able to return on the first day of term one. Portables will act as classrooms until the school is rebuilt from scratch.
“It’s a very old school with a lot of history and importance to the people here,” local Labor MP Harriet Shing says.
“So we’ll do what we need to return as much routine and consistency to people’s lives here.”
Check fire conditions at the Vic Emergency website.
Lifeline 131 114
Paul is a reporter for The Age.