Six years on from Blue Mountains’ Mount Victoria bushfire, ‘half the street just went and never came back’





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October 04, 2019 07:05:32

Six years on from a ferocious fire that destroyed half the homes in Mount Victoria’s St Georges Parade, just one charred house has been rebuilt by new owners.

Every resident who lost their home ran from the fire and never returned.

Rolley Clarke’s self-built home survived the blaze.

“The fire front came through incredibly quickly, and basically those that hadn’t left prior to the fire getting there had to run for their lives,” he said.

“Half the population of the street just went after that one hour of fire and most of them never came back.”

Simon Crosbie is one resident who never returned.

“I never went back to Mount Victoria to live,” Mr Crosbie said, who lost everything except for his favourite iron frying pan.

“For me, I was never comfortable going back there to see if any little bits and pieces had survived.

“The total finality of it … there’s nothing. You have to start again.”

State of emergency

The 2013 fires, described as the worst natural disaster in Blue Mountains history, led the New South Wales Government to declare a state of emergency.

Destroying 210 homes, the fires burned on three fronts: Linksview Road, State Mine, and Mount York Road, which was the blaze that would, within an hour of its inception, destroy around 50 per cent of the homes on St George’s Parade.

“Prior to the fire, there were about 10 houses in the street and five of them were completely burnt to the ground,” Mr Clarke said.

“Of those, none have been rebuilt by the owners who had them prior to the fire, and only one of the blocks of land that had a house on it has been built on since the fire … and this is six years later.”

A cold, windy day with ‘horrific’ winds

The morning of the Mount Victoria fire was described by those who witnessed it as a cold, windy day.

“The winds were horrific — they were up over 100 kilometres an hour,” Mr Clarke said.

By sheer luck, Mr Clarke witnessed the fire’s inception, caused by a tree branch falling onto power lines.

“There was a fire not bigger than a bucket when I first saw it, and that expanded so quickly it was unbelievable,” he said.

After ‘calling it in’ to triple zero, Mr Clarke returned to his street where fire trucks were already connecting hoses to the water supply.

With thick smoke blanketing the town, Mr Crosbie was well aware of the impending risk and was busy with his evacuation plan.

“I had to catch all the chickens and ducks and geese and dogs and cats and put them in boxes in the van,” he said.

“There was so much smoke you couldn’t see what was going on.

“All of a sudden a fireman came up and said, ‘Everybody out now, you’ve got to go now’.”

After collecting the last couple of birds, Mr Crosbie went to collect his mother-in-law from their timber home.

“The garage beside the house was starting to burn, so I grabbed her and just ran,” he said.

While they tried to escape in the van, Mr Crosbie soon realised he was parked in by a fire truck and was forced to flee in his wife’s car.

“I got [my mother-in-law] around to the passenger’s door, on our hands and knees virtually,” he said.

“The car started, and I backed out onto the road, the front of the car was on fire … so I stopped in front of a fire truck and popped the bonnet and said, ‘Can you put this out, please?’

“Then I went back to find out where my wife was, because I had no idea, and it was about half an hour later that I found out that she’d been in the fire truck and they’d driven out.”

Later that afternoon, the evacuated residents were rounded up and taken to see what was left.

“That’s when we found out that everything had gone,” Mr Crosbie said.

“There was nothing — no fences, the trees were gone, everything. There were no buildings.”

In the immediate aftermath, a friend lent Mr Crosbie a house in Blackheath. The longer he stayed the more he realised he did not want to return to Mount Victoria.

Now living in Blackheath, in a home still closely surrounded by bushland, Mr Crosbie said he tried not to think back to the Mount Victoria blaze.

“I just look back on it as something that’s happened, and I try not to think too much about it,” he said.

Recovering and rebuilding

While Mr Crosbie never felt pressure to rebuild, the question was always asked — both from government departments and media organisations.

Oral historian Peg Fraser, who has spent years studying what it was like to live through and beyond the Black Saturday bushfires, said there was often pressure placed on survivors to rebuild.

“The question of rebuilding is a really fraught one,” Dr Fraser said.

“Rebuilding your house in the same place after an event like this was somehow co-opted into an expression of national identity,” she said.

While Dr Fraser said the pride we felt for our homes could be positive, this brought into question whether rebuilding was such a good idea — especially in light of climate change.

“Droughts are more severe and more frequent, bushfires will be more frequent and more devastating, so when you applaud somebody for rebuilding their house because it’s sort of saying ‘I will not be defeated’ is that really such a good thing?” she said.

And while Mr Clarke said the greatest loss for him had been the close friends he had lost to faraway places, he was pleased the street was moving on.

“Since [the fire], there have been new people moving into the street, which is great. Young people who are building houses, and they probably have a whole different reality to what I have about what the street is, and that’s good,” he said.

“Life goes on.”

Topics:

fires,

disasters-and-accidents,

psychology,

human-interest,

mount-victoria-2786,

blackheath-2785



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