Rappville ‘shattered’ and left with very little after bushfires, but community spirit shines through


October 12, 2019 07:59:23

Allan Robertson doesn’t know how to break the news to his partner that their house has been reduced to ashes.

“It’s going to be very hard, she’s got terminal lung cancer,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

Mr Roberston watched as the couple’s home of four years went up in flames as a ferocious bushfire swept through the northern New South Wales town of Rappville.

But the destruction could have been avoided, with police almost certain the fire was deliberately lit.

WARNING: This story contains images that may be distressing to some people.

Two people were killed and 49 homes have been destroyed in the region since Tuesday night, as the Long Gully Road and Busby Flat Road fires merged.

Before the fire hit, Mr Robertson ducked into his Nandabah Street property to collect some nighties and hospital paperwork for his partner.

The fire front arrived “like a tornado” from the west, giving him no time to save anything else inside.

“These are all the clothes that were given to me by some friends,” he says, pointing to his outfit.

“This is it, and a pair of thongs.

“I’m devastated, this is where I had retired. [I have] no insurance, so I’m shattered.”

Mr Robertson said the fire was so fast and the wind so strong that “you just couldn’t defend against it”.

“The place next door started going first and the firies couldn’t stop it and that was it — it just spread from there into my place,” he said.

Two doors down, the Rappville pub was copping a beating as embers started to burn the top of the timber building, but firefighters managed to save the pub with several waterbombing runs.

The Tarmac timber mill, 16 kilometres west in Wyan, wasn’t so lucky.

The last of its employees left an hour before the fire arrived.

The building is now twisted metal, woodchips still smoulder out the back, while other piles of milled timber remain unscathed.

The Tarmac Group is promising to rebuild the multi-million-dollar sawmill, which employs more than 150 people.

Richmond Valley Mayor Robert Mustow estimates the impact of the fires on the local economy could run “into the tens of millions of dollars”.

“It’s not only the mill, it’s the livestock industry, farming, cropping — it’s devastating,” he says.

Hundreds of livestock are believed to have been killed, with many needing to be euthanased.

Robert Smith says his neighbour, who owns 200 acres next to the sawmill, lost $20,000 worth of cows.

“They all got burnt. He found 16 of their bodies and there’s another five that are still missing but he doesn’t hold out hope that any of them will be alive,” he said.

The fire came frighteningly close to Mr Smith’s property, which was protected by fire trucks until 4:00am on Wednesday.

“We’ve got a heap of pine trees around the place and if the wind had changed — which it was doing yesterday, it kept swirling … from nearly every direction — it could have been a different story,” he said.

Mr Smith said the people of Rappville are resilient and remain positive, despite the destruction.

“Everyone’s spirit’s great. I can’t believe just how everyone’s been pitching in and doing what they can to help,” he said.

A local farmer is chopping up fallen power poles, one of about 200 down in the area, to help Essential Energy crews remove them more easily.

Crews are working tirelessly to clear trees that have fallen across roads, and volunteers are checking in on each other to ensure everyone is doing OK.

Tina Hag and Robert Collier, who lost all their belongings when their rental home burnt down, have been inundated by locals with offers of nappies and clothes for the children.

Their story also struck a chord with ABC readers as far as Perth and the Philippines, where one couple expressed an interest in donating furniture from their deceased family’s estate.

And Mr Robertson’s neighbours are doing all they can to help ease the pain of his loss.

As he prepares to break the news to his partner in palliative care, friends secure the front gates to the ruins of his property and help him hitch the car to his caravan — his home for the foreseeable future.






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