FIRE HORROR: ‘It was eight days of living in hell’

27th November 2019 5:00 AM
Premium Content Subscriber only
Eungella resident Jo Freegard with sons William Smith, 15, and Ben Smith, 6.
Eungella resident Jo Freegard with sons William Smith, 15, and Ben Smith, 6.

 

AS HER children were pushed into the last helicopter out of fire ravaged Eungella, Jo Freegard was 14km away at the edge of a roaring blaze.

Blinded by smoke, and trying to direct waterbombing planes towards the fires at Cathay Creek, Ms Freegard said she had no idea where her family was.

"You don't get a chance to think about anything," she said.

"I didn't know where my husband was. I didn't even know the kids were gone"

With heatwaves fanning volatile fire conditions through the Central Coast and Whitsundays district, Ms Freegard said the rural firefighters had been running on impulse and adrenaline for weeks.

Fifteen days after the initial fire on Friday, November 16, 2018 the residents remaining in the mountaintop village were pinned in by flames, Ms Freegard said.

On Friday, November 30 a fire burning between Eungella Dam Rd and Mackay-Eungella Rd had edged closer to the top of the range.

To the northwest the Finch Hatton and Dalrymple fires had merged into one blaze.

To the south Broken River was on fire, and in the southeast Crediton was burning.

On some days, firefighters were trying to subdue blazes in 40 degree temperatures, fighting 20km westerly winds and 15 per cent humidity, Ms Freegard said.

 

On November 29, at 10am fires continued to slowly climb up the mountain in Eungella, with local reports saying the fire was heading towards Eungella State School.
On November 29, at 10am fires continued to slowly climb up the mountain in Eungella, with local reports saying the fire was heading towards Eungella State School.

 

From her porch at Eungella Chalet, manager Tess Ford watched as the valley burned.

"It was eight days of living in hell," Ms Ford said.

But when she saw the fires start climbing through the rainforest, up the mountain, she knew she was in danger.

Together she and an experienced rural firefighter watched a "firestorm" in the valley below.

"I watched the colour drain from his face," she said.

On the morning of the evacuation, Ms Ford said she woke up to a wall of flames outside her window as ash rained down on the town.

When a police officer arrived at the door Ms Ford said she grabbed, permanent Chalet resident Charlie the ginger cat and left her home - not knowing what they would return to.

 

Eungella chalet manager Tess Ford with Charlie the cat.
Eungella chalet manager Tess Ford with Charlie the cat.

With Charlie in her arms, Ms Ford made her way to the community hall on North Street, where about 30 people were sheltering from the smoke.

A mixture of rural firefighters, residents who had chosen to stay, visitors trapped by the fires and about nine children were huddled together in the hall.

Ms Ford said she remembered someone asking "So, who wants to go?" and then silence.

"We were all there to fight," she said.

FROM THE SKY: Finch Hatton five months after the fires: In late November residents in the Pioneer Valley were evacuated due to bushfires. See how the area has recovered almost five months later. Also check out this drone footage from Eimeo Beach. https://www.dailymercury.com.au/videos/sky-eimeo-beach/65116/
FROM THE SKY: Finch Hatton five months after the fires: In late November residents in the Pioneer Valley were evacuated due to bushfires. See how the area has recovered almost five months later. Also check out this drone footage from Eimeo Beach. https://www.dailymercury.com.au/videos/sky-eimeo-beach/65116/

After a few moments, Ms Ford said, the decision was made to send the children, pregnant women and those affected by the smoke out in the helicopter.

Ms Freegard's 15-year-old son William Smith was one of nine people evacuated from Eungella by the RACQ CQ Rescue helicopter.

Looking down at the destruction, William said he was finally able to see how bad the situation was.

"I'd seen bushfires before, but nothing like that," he said.

 

RACQ CQ Rescue evacuated nine people from Eungella as a bushfire threatened the township and closed the road up the range.
RACQ CQ Rescue evacuated nine people from Eungella as a bushfire threatened the township and closed the road up the range.

 

William and his two younger brothers Ryan Smith, 12, and Ben Smith, 6, were flown out of Eungella at 5pm, but it wasn't until three hours later that their mother - who was still fighting fires - learned they were safe.

Over 20 days 121,000 hectares burnt across Finch Hatton, Eungella, Dalrymple Heights, Teemburra Dam, Broken River, Crediton and Mt Pinnacle, a Queensland Fire and Emergency Services report shows.

Three homes and eight sheds were destroyed by the fires, QFES said, but Ms Ford believes the damage would have been far worse had it not been for the residents who remained to fight the fire.

"That's what saved Eungella - the local knowledge and the passion."

A year on the adrenaline hangover could still be felt, Ms Ford said, and many residents were still anxious about fires.

"Some people are still in recovery mode," she said.

While the land itself is recovering, Ms Freegard has doubts it will ever completely heal.

After 'unburnable' patches of rainforest went up in flames, she said the region was more vulnerable to future fires.

"There will be more now. The fires have a track," she warned.