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'It was like a Christmas tree, all lit up': Bushfires in northern NSW have already taken four homes this winter

Joanne Shoebridge, Luisa Rubbo and Emma Siossian, Wednesday August 14, 2019 - 18:31 EST
ABC licensed image
What is left of the home of of Patricia Thornton and her husband in Whiteman Creek in northern NSW. - ABC licensed

A woman who lost her house in the bushfires in northern New South Wales this week believes it ignited when embers from a tree about 300 metres away blew onto her roof.



Patricia Thornton's home at Whiteman Creek near Copmanhurst was destroyed by flames in the early house of Monday morning.

"It was very hectic," she said.

WARNING: The following story contains distressing images.

Ms Thornton said they had fires all around them and the fire brigade came and told them that the fire was heading towards their place.

She said things were calm when she and her husband went to bed.

Later, a loud bang woke them — which may have saved their lives.

"About quarter to four in the morning we heard a bang and we jumped out of bed and our fibreglass roof over the back verandah was on fire," Ms Thornton said.

"We woke up to hearing 'bang' — the gas bottles exploding and paint tins exploding.

"If we hadn't woken up to that, my kids would be burying their parents.

"It was like a Christmas tree, it was just all lit up."



Ms Thornton said embers flew over, and their fibreglass roofing caught on fire, which spread into the carport.

"We jumped in our cars to move them out of there," she said.

"I called the fire brigade and by the time they got there they couldn't save the house, it was all involved and that was it.

"We just had to stand there and watch it burn.

"We were just helpless and the fire brigade was helpless to do anything."

Ms Thornton said the get away was a matter of seconds.

"If we hadn't walked out the door, our cars would have been engulfed and then I would have lost my photos," she said.



Ms Thornton experienced a flood 10 years ago in Grafton but never a bushfire.

"The flood went right though out house and wiped it all out," she said.

"At least we were able to clean up and start again.

"But we've got nothing to start over again now it's just gone."

Bushfire toll so far

At least four homes have been destroyed in the weekend's bushfires across northern New South Wales.

The Rural Fire Service's initial assessment has confirmed two houses were destroyed in Clearfield Road at the Rappville fire in the Richmond Valley.

In the Kempsey region, one home was razed in the Racing Track, Turners Flat fire and another in the Gilmore's Gully fire south of Bellbrook.

One house was damaged in the Brewers Road, Kippenduff fire in the Richmond Valley and a total of nine outbuildings were destroyed in the fires so far assessed by the Rural Fire Service (RFS).

The RFS tally shows that in four fires so far assessed, 29 houses and 22 outbuildings were not touched by the fires.



Firefighters are busy putting in containment lines on a number of bushfires burning across the north coast.

"We're pretty lucky that we've had a couple of days of reprieve from this weather," RFS spokesman, James Morris, said.

"We've seen much cooler overnight temperatures as well as very high humidity which is excellent, which is allowing those fire conditions to ease overnight."

Mr Morris said it was certainly a combined effort.

"We've worked really well with a number of local residents in the area who did have well-prepared properties, who did stay and defend, and we're actively continuing to defend their property right through that fire situation," he said.

Injured wildlife

Wildlife rescuers said the recent bushfires across northern NSW will have taken a toll on local wildlife and are calling on residents in bushfire-affected areas to be on the lookout for injured animals.

WIRES state koala coordinator Vickii Lett said they are waiting for burn areas to be declared safe so they can search for injured animals.

She said in the meantime, residents can assist by being on the lookout for wildlife and leaving out water.

"Asking residents if they can keep an eye out for injured wildlife and leaving bowls of water out for them," she said.



Ms Lett said a badly-burned female koala was rescued north-west of Grafton this week, but sadly needed to be euthanised.

"The majority of the koalas we get here are affected by chlamydia, so to see a healthy breeding female who could contribute to her population die in a fire is distressing," she said.

"I suppose the levels of pain for that animal would have been enormous."

Bushfire outlook

Warmer weather is expected to return from tomorrow.

"But we're not seeing the winds until either Sunday, into Monday where we'll see elevated fire danger's right across certainly the eastern and northern parts of NSW," he said.

"Crews have got a couple of days.

"We're hoping that we will be able to tackle a lot of these fires and at least mark them to contained by mid-weekend if it all goes according to plan."

'We should have gone earlier'

Ms Thornton said they should have gotten out earlier.

"The firemen said to us 'are you staying or going?' and I said 'I want to stay right now, until we really have to go'," she said.

"But he did say 'get any valuables, sentimental things and some clothes together' — and we should have gone.

"We were quite lucky we got out alive."

Ms Thornton's husband is not in good health and she said she is not in the best of health either.

"We're over it, we're too old to go again," she said.

"I'm over living in the bush, it's just so dry up here.

"You go down in the street and it's just black each side of the road and burning embers still everywhere."



The NSW RFS has declared an early start to the bushfire danger period for the far north coast — two weeks earlier than usual.

Acting District Officer Aaron Howard said that means anyone wishing to light a fire will need a permit from Saturday, August 17.

"Given the current conditions we're seeing across the far north coast area and also the fire activity seen further south, and Northern Rivers and Clarence Valley, we decided to bring it forward," Mr Howard said.

"It's just we have a lot of resources out and about to assist in other fires and we're really looking at minimising ignitions locally."

The Northern Rivers, the Clarence Valley Council local government area and Coffs Harbour and Bellingen on the NSW mid-north coast also start their bushfire danger period this Saturday.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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