Fire destroyed my home in minutes
STEADYING herself against the burnt husk of a palm tree, one of the few things still standing, Penny Stanbridge yesterday surveyed the rubble that a day before had been her family home of 23 years.
It took just 20 minutes from when Mrs Stanbridge first saw the bushfires approaching her Tenterfield property, in the state’s northwest, until the double-brick house was reduced to a tumble of bricks and tin.
She had been preparing lunch on Friday when she saw smoke a few kilometres away.
“I made a call to triple-0 at 3.10pm, then a police officer came round to my house and yelled at me to ‘ leave now’,” Mrs Stanbridge, 71, said. “By 3.30pm I was watching the fire from my friend’s place and saw my house completely destroyed.”
At Tenterfield, one home, two car yards, a pistol club and 12 sheds were destroyed, with a further four homes damaged. Firefighters saved 65 homes from the blaze.
Last night, 62 bushfires burned across the state, 24 of which were out of control. Homes were still under threat from fires at Drake, near Tenterfield, and Bees Nest, near Armidale. Strong winds were expected to fan flames at both fires overnight.
Volunteer firefighter Neville Smith (pictured left) is also fighting for his life after being injured in the bushfire.
More than 450 firefighters, 170 fire trucks and aircraft have been deployed to the fires and reinforcements have been brought in from as far as Sydney and Canberra.
Two major blazes rapidly moved on Tenterfield, 700km north of Sydney, and a third between Coffs Harbour and Armidale, due to winds gusting up to 90km/h.
Mrs Stanbridge’s home, recently valued at $650,000, is the worst-damaged property. Historical artefacts she had collected her whole life have been destroyed.
She said: “There was a blunderbuss from the 1700s and a drill from the 1800s my late husband used to build the home. It is all gone now.”
Her son Ross, 51, lives at the family property in Stanthorpe, over the Queensland border, but kept his valuable vintage cars at the property.
“I had a 1906 Cadillac and a 1926 Vauxhall in the shed,” he said. “Counting all the cars we lost about $250,000. More than that, the Cadillac is very sentimental. My dad died 11 years ago and when he was cremated I put his ashes through the engine and blasted him out on the property.”
While three family cats also perished, the house was insured and Mrs Stanbridge said she was lucky to have a place to stay. “Ross has been living at our home in Stanthorpe so I’ll just move in with him,” she said. “I guess he will annoy me now.”
The fires were so fierce on Friday and yesterday that they started to create pyrocumulus clouds, known as fire
storms, which hovered over the nearby ranges spitting lightning onto the ground.
It was at the height of the blaze that Mr Smith, 66, (left) was badly burned on his face, head and hands and flown to hospital in a critical condition.
He was battling a grass fire at a farm owned by a local councillor on the edge of town when a sudden gust of wind whipped the flames back onto him.
“Neville was alight. His trousers had burnt up to the knee. I thought he had shorts on,” councillor Bronwyn Petrie said. “His face and hair had been singed and his back had been singed where the coat had been alight, but his hands were severely burned.”
As Maria Kelly escaped her nearby property, she saw Mr Smith being driven to safety by other volunteers.
“He was in a bad way, sitting in the front seat. The fire was absolutely devastating,” she said.
The fires burned through more than 9000ha around Tenterfield and Ms Kelly, 57, only just managed to escape as the blaze bore down. She said: “As I was driving down the road there was fire on both sides. It was terrifying.”
Mrs Kelly and her husband David, 57, returned home to inspect the damage yesterday. Mr Kelly said: “There would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of excavator equipment that has been destroyed. That is all insured.
“I’m pretty gutted about my motorbike. I’ve had this bike since I was 17 and the shed is still smouldering so I don’t want to open it as something might explode. We’re not the only ones affected and we’re both OK. Everyone in this town will stick together and get through the worst of it.”
The fire whipped around the town of about 4000 people, jumping roads and skipping over the near-empty dam.
The Bureau of Meteorology expects conditions to ease today.
The f ire s weeps across Tenterfield yesterday.
Penny Stanbridge outside her home yesterday after it was destroyed by the blaze. Pictures: David Swift
David and Maria Kelly survey the damage to their farm.