By the end of that day, 200 residential properties had been lost to fire. Today, the final touches to rebuilding the community are still coming to a close.
I grew up in the Lower Blue Mountains, surrounded by stories of past bushfire seasons. I recall the blackened weary faces of the volunteer firefighters as I handed out cups of tea and sandwiches as a teenager. Local resident and family friend Margaret Maguire* agreed to share her experience of this most recent catastrophic event in October 2013 with me.
Margaret and her husband Vince lived on Paulwood Avenue in the Lower Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, where I lived as a child. They had been there since April 1972 and raised their six children on this quiet, unassuming no-through street.
They lost their house that day in 2013.
I drove down Paulwood Avenue shortly after the bushfire. What hit me was the random nature of the inferno: five houses were burnt in total on that street, three of them together – numbers 10, 12, 14 – and two on either side of the street at the bottom, 21 and 22. All of the houses except one were owner-occupied by people over sixty years old.
The homes untouched by the fires displayed the usual detritus of family life on verandahs and front lawns: skateboards, scooters, soccer balls. As if nothing had happened. Bright spring flowers in garden beds demanded attention, their gaiety belying the tragedy that befell this street.
While their house was being rebuilt in the ensuing months, the Maguires stayed at a niece’s furnished property in Glenmore Park, downhill from the mountains area on the Sydney side. Her generous gesture meant moving in with her own parents for the duration of the build.
I asked Margaret of her memory of that day. Her street had also been threatened by the devastating fires of 1978 and 1994. On each of these occasions, she had time to prepare. This time, however, there was no time to exercise emergency and evacuation plans. It was her sister Pat who alerted them both to the fire’s proximity. She’d phoned them just after they had finished lunch, to see how close they were to it.
‘What fire?’ asked Vince. ‘There is one near you’ was her sober reply.
Neither of them could see any smoke from their house, so Margaret decided to walk up to the end of the street for a look. She met a friend who had just picked up her granddaughter from nearby St Thomas’s primary school, which was being evacuated. Margaret decided to do the same, only to find that her two grandchildren hadn’t gone to school that day – they had medical appointments. The short trip to the school gave her a good view of the fire that was coming from the south side of the school property in the direction of her street. Though she didn’t think Paulwood Avenue was in any immediate danger – it was still too far away to be a threat.
By the time Margaret returned home, neighbours had started putting garden sprinklers on the roofs of their houses as a precaution, but there was no water. The emergency crews in the area had already depleted resources. She busied herself going through old parish rosters to let parents know that St Thomas’s was being evacuated.
Vince started putting a few things in the car. First on the list was his folder of information relating to the family tree he’d been working on with his brother, an item that Margaret didn’t think was necessary for their survival, she thought later. But Vince had spent many hours on it already; it was too valuable in Vince’s mind to be left behind.
There was a loud crackling noise and they both looked out the back window where they were greeted by thirty foot high flames advancing past their back fence to the house. Vince yelled: ‘Marg we are going NOW’.
Margaret recalls grabbing her handbag, some papers and a few random items and throwing them into their sedan. She tried to catch their hen, who ran away from her. A neighbour ran up and said ‘I have no car and I need to save my cats’. Margaret threw her the keys to their 2nd vehicle. They then drove to the safety of their eldest daughter’s house, on the other side of Winmalee.
Their nephew who lived a street away from them rang his mum (Pat) to say that ‘Aunty Marg’s house has gone’. He was standing on his roof. It was 2.42pm, about forty-five minutes after they were first alerted to the existence of the fires by Pat’s phone call.
Margaret and Vince returned to their street at 7pm. In her typical good humour, she relayed to me that their hen ran around the street during the fire and those who stayed thought they were going to have BBQ chicken for dinner. When they returned to inspect the damage she was sitting on top of her coop which had miraculously survived the inferno.
Margaret’s neighbour, six-year-old Jack kept some of her pot plants watered while they waited for their new house to be completed. He also looked after the hen, with the help of his mum. Another resident nursed more plants and gave them a collection of kitchen utensils when they finally came back to live in their new home.
The Maguires were invited to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their visit the following year. Margaret said the Duchess was ‘absolutely lovely and her concern seemed very genuine. She was really interested in what was said to her’.
Margaret was more concerned about younger families with small children and how the ordeal must have impacted on them, rather than her own plight. She was quick to praise others when in fact she and Vince were selected to meet the royals as they were so ready to help those in need.
The Maguires were overwhelmed by the support they received. ‘The love and caring shown by the wider community was very healing. So many people made donations of goods and money, others made rugs and beautiful quilts for people who had lost their homes. The knowledge that someone who does not even know you has done this for you is very comforting. I even received a gift of hand cream and face cream from one of the schools where I teach SRE (religious education)’.
The couple ensured that their new house was built with fireproof material. The hen house also got a makeover with the insurance money – a new coat of paint. Jack got to choose the colour, fire engine red.
Note: *not her real name