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Tathra bushfire survivors huddled on beach as 'cyclonic' winds fanned destructive blaze

Monday March 19, 2018 - 22:09 EDT
ABC licensed image
Juvette Jory, Jerome Jory and Jason Davis try to escape the blaze that consumed dozens of houses in Tathra yesterday. - ABC licensed

Steve Jory made it back to his home in Tathra, on the New South Wales south coast, in time to pick up his children and a few of the mementoes they had packed.

It was Sunday afternoon and a massive fire had just taken hold of the bush behind his house.

Steve grabbed a couple of fume masks he had, especially for his son Jerome, who has some respiratory problems.

"Then we went straight down to the beach, but even then the smoke, the wind, the heat, the sand blowing was unbelievable," he said.



Mr Jory's home, which he had built himself with his wife, was lost in the devastating blaze .

"We lost that house that was a labour of love," he said.

The family were ushered by police from the beach to the surf club and then escaped in the evening to Bermagui.

Some residents also spent the night at local hotels.

They are not allowed back into the town to check on their homes until the RFS gives the all clear, leaving many of them anxiously waiting to see what has survived.

Desperate search for pets

Victims have begun telling their stories of how they escaped from the blaze.



Wendy Whiting, who lives in the small cul-de-sac of Flora Place, was inside her home when her neighbours rushed to tell her to get out.

"So I packed a few things, the cat was the main trouble, couldn't find him for a while, and I got in the garage and the power was off," she said.

"So then I was trapped in the garage and couldn't get the car out."

She said a friend helped her get the garage open and they went to the local surf club to seek shelter, but it was packed and they decided to head for the beach.

"So we got to the beach and it was like a cyclone, the sand hit you in the eyes and it was something terrible."



They eventually ended up in the Bega evacuation centre after being ordered to leave the town.

She saw the fire approaching her cul-de-sac before she was forced to flee and does not know what has happened to her house.

"It was just coming over the top and Wildlife Drive is all bush and apparently that's gone, a lot of houses are burnt down there so I don't know whether ours is gone till I get there," she said.



Little warning given to flee

Another survivor, Warren Lowrey, was staying at the local caravan park when the fire broke out.

"We were just sitting there, trying to work out what to do and suddenly got the evacuation call, headed to the beach and walked along the beach up to the Bega river, and from there got evacuated to here," he said.

He said they got pretty close to the fire and only had about 20 minutes before it was almost upon them.

"We could see flames, saw flames coming over the hill, that's when we got the evacuation call and yep it was time to go."

His family spent the night at the evacuation centre in Bega.

His car and possessions are still at the caravan park but he said he was more concerned for the locals who might have lost their homes.



Beach, car park quickly became crowded

Tathra resident Tas Fitzer, 21, said it was about midday when he saw the smoke rise up across the river from where he lives.

"It was pretty terrifying, we first of all went down to the beach in Tathra to again take precautions, but as the smoke started to get closer and closer we couldn't see much," he said.

"At lot of people with animals like us had gone down to the beach, we probably got there about 2pm or 2:30pm in the afternoon and a number of people had congregated there."

He said visibility quickly deteriorated.



"Getting down to the beach was all right, but probably about 3:30pm was when the smoke really started to envelop the area and there was a point where we really couldn't see a metre or two ahead of us," he said.

"It was a pretty terrifying situation, we had a cat and a dog, we didn't know if we had to jump in the water what would happen there."

He said the beach area quickly became crowded with people fleeing the fire.

"There would have been probably somewhere between 50 and 100 I reckon around the beach, which made it really difficult getting out when police did come, a lot of people having to try and reverse out of the car park.

"We had the fire coming from the south and we had to head north so the roads were blocked off so it was a pretty chaotic situation.

"Thankfully by just before 4pm, the police had come down and directed us to come into Bega and we made it to the showground."


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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