Fire destroyed my home in min­utes

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - MITCHELL VAN HOMRIGH

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.

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