ACT News


Chauvel Circle of friends 10 years after fire disaster

In the park at the centre of Chauvel Circle in Chapman, residents old and new meet in the afternoon sun. Some exchange hugs and warm greetings. Some haven't been here for a while. Coming back can still jolt the system.

This is a special street where the ordinary bonds of a neighbourhood were forged even tighter when the January 18 firestorm descended and destroyed 17 of the 22 homes, most sitting high over Canberra, next to the Cooleman Ridge Nature Reserve.

Aerial shots of the devastated street, the mish-mash of rubble bleeding the edges of the perfect circle, became another symbol of the fires.

Ten years later, all but one of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt. The ACT Planning and Land Authority says approval has been given for a new home to be built on the land, with construction due to start next month.

The neighbourhood has changed. Some who've been living there for as long as 40 years remain. Others have moved on. New people have moved in. All have a story to tell.

As Canberra prepares to mark the 10th anniversary on Friday of the firestorm in which four people died, hundreds were injured and almost 500 homes were destroyed, The Canberra Times returned to Chauvel Circle to talk to the people who call it home.


The Mason family at No. 20 went through an almost unfathomable ordeal that had only partly to do with the fires. When the firestorm hit, John Mason had already been in the intensive care unit of the Canberra Hospital for eight weeks suffering from the paralysing Guillain-Barré´ syndrome. Overnight, the former real estate agent had gone from being healthy to unable to move a muscle, even to blink.

On the day of the fires, his wife Karyn and daughter Kate, then 14, were forced to flee from their house.

Mr Mason would remain in hospital for a total of 18 months as his family struggled with not only his recovery but the rebuilding of their home. He remembers the architect coming to the ICU to show him the plans for the house. The family, with son Jack, now 22, moved into their rebuilt home in December 2004.

''People ask me how we coped and I just say 'We had to','' Karyn Mason said. ''We got through one day and the one after that and the one after that.''

The Masons' neighbours at No.18, Michael Politi and his wife Marylin, also lost their home in the firestorm and rebuilt. They moved back into Chauvel Circle in early 2005. Mr Politi is a singing teacher and has a studio at home.

''When I heard Michael singing, I knew I'd come home,'' Mrs Mason said.

Emotions are raw for Marylin Politi as the 10th anniversary of the bushfires approaches. Her fragility has less to do with her own experience and more to do with seeing the coverage of the recent fires in Tasmania and elsewhere.

''It's watching what's happening everywhere and what the people have to go through. It's not so much the fire but the aftermath,'' she said.

The Politis have lived in Chauvel Circle for 27 years. They considered not returning but loved the area so much, they decided to rebuild. ''We've survived it, that's the main thing,'' Mr Politi said.

Tony and Eda McGloughlin had lived at No.6 Chauvel Circle for almost 20 years. Their house survived the fire but they knew well the pain of loss. Cyclone Tracy claimed their home in Darwin in 1974. Mrs McGloughlin said when it came to the firestorm they felt, more than anything, that chance had played a role.

''We felt extraordinarily lucky that our house had not been hit by a fireball. No amount of water we poured on it would have saved it,'' she said.

They had been contemplating moving in any case and the firestorm was the catalyst for them confirming the decision. They moved to Yarralumla in 2004.

Mr McGloughlin, a teacher who retired as principal of Erindale College, said he didn't like returning to the memories of the fires.

''Because I still have a certain amount of residual anger, because of some of the things that happened. But people were also very supportive, friends and people around the area were just incredible,'' he said.

The Lewis family at No. 26 had been living in Melbourne and renting out their home for two years before the fires. They returned in early 2003 and repainted and recarpeted the house. Their furniture was moved in two days before the firestorm hit.

As the fire approached, in all its ferocity, Lyndal and John Lewis and their three young children were at home. Mrs Lewis and the children eventually left. Mr Lewis stayed but quickly realised he was fighting a losing battle as surrounding pine trees exploded.

Mrs Lewis remembers, before she fled with the children, watching embers from the fire burn into the carpet for which they had yet to pay.

''I feel fine now,'' she said. ''You look at it and think we probably wouldn't ever have built a house. We probably would have bought another house we liked and changed it. There's nothing wrong with this house, it's perfectly fine, but you might have changed things if you had more time to think about what you wanted.''

Gerin Hingee and his family from No. 38 were away on holiday.

''We lost everything, which was distressing, the videos and photos of the kids. It's still a memory for us,'' he said.

His brother, Ric, also lost his home in Duffy.

The family did rebuild, determined to stay in Chauvel Circle where they have now lived for 40 years.

January 18 is also the birthday of Mr Hingee's twin sons Myall and Kass, who turn 26 this year.

''So we don't actually mark the fire, we celebrate their birthday,'' he said.

Jane and Rick Smyth had lived at No. 30 Chauvel Circle for 27 years before the firestorm destroyed their much-loved home.

''Our original plan was to return and build a smaller house on the block but then we saw the folly of that because it was a very large block,'' Mrs Smyth said.

They eventually bought a unit off the plan at Narrabundah, that decision coming ''when we felt a bit stronger''.

But it is still affecting to return to the circle, where they raised their children and spent so much of their lives. ''I feel a bit confused,'' Mrs Smyth said. ''In some ways the neighbourhood is very different but in other ways it's wonderful our old neighbours are there and rehoused in very lovely buildings. Often they talk about them being more suitable than their previous buildings.

''I think there's been some really good healing there. I'm sad we're not part of that but also I think what we've done is more suitable for our needs now.

''I think the only lasting effect for us is a respect for fire but, on the whole, we're fine and we don't have lots of regrets.''

Judy Reid and her builder husband Jim moved into the home he built at No. 14 Chauvel Circle in 1975. They were in Hobart when the firestorm destroyed the house.

''There was a series of three phone calls. The first one was that the fires were here and my son and son-in-law were here. And then another call to say they'd had to leave and to expect the worst.

''And then the third one said that it had all gone. So it was quite something,'' Mrs Reid said.

Mr Reid rebuilt their home in his 70s, with mates from the building game eager to help.

But instead of replicating their old home, the Reids decided to go with a dual occupancy, with their daughter Cathy Reid and her husband Geoff Hawke and their two children occupying the other building. They all moved into the new homes in October 2004.

It's a development that worked out well for everyone.

''It's been fantastic,'' Cathy Reid said. ''We gave it a lot of thought. Not everyone can live that close to their parents but we get on really well and my grandmother had lived with mum and dad for 17 years after her husband had passed away. Dad built a flat on to the original house.

''So we'd seen how it could work and that it could be a viable option.''

The horrific Tuesday this month when the winds whipped up and the temperature soared put many people on edge, including Judy Reid, as the threat of fire reared its head again.

''I haven't told my husband but I had my bag packed. They talk about having a plan and my plan was to get in the car and be off. My husband said he'd stay and fight - and he'll be 80 in March. He's Irish,'' she said.

Tony and Brigitte Brickwood were back from the coast for about an hour before the firestorm forced them from their home at No. 36. Mr Brickwood said that 10 years later they were feeling ''pretty good'' but he had some reservations.

''I'm not entirely happy with the outcome in terms of what's happened to people affected worse than us,'' he said.

''We're OK but other people were badly injured and suffered a worse fate than us and I think the government could have put its hand a bit deeper in its pockets to help those people really severely affected by the fires.''

Tony and Jan Waring have lived in their home at No. 24 since 1984. It was spared from the fires.

Mr Waring said the next seven or eight years after the fires was like living on a building site but that's not his greatest memory.

''There were a lot of people who were very helpful. And it's just good to see how the charities helped out other people,'' he said.

''It also always amazed me the fire couldn't be stopped somewhere along the way. All the pundits say it was unstoppable - maybe it was. But that's hindsight.''

There are new residents in the circle, too. Cathy and Greg Sutton bought the cleared block at No. 28 after the former owners, the Forresters, sold. The Suttons, with their four children, moved into their new home in December of 2003.

''We've loved it, we've really enjoyed it,'' Mrs Sutton said.

Justin and Sally Smedley bought one of the houses that survived the fire, No. 22, at auction in early 2010. The arrival of their son Jack, nearly one, has also added new life to the street.

''We bought the worst house on the best street,'' Mr Smedley said. ''I love it. It's a very, very peaceful area.''

Chauvel Circle is the kind of place where residents gather in the centre park for drinks on Christmas Eve but where the blocks are large enough for some privacy and seclusion.

They don't live in each other's pockets but, as Judy Reid says, ''if I was in trouble anyone would help''.

''It's a lovely place to live, put it that way,'' she said.

And one where there is now a momentous shared history among many of the residents.

Ten years on from those dark days, John Mason is able to walk with the help of a frame. He said his recovery was all to do with having ''wonderful family and friends''.

Marylin Politi, soon after the fires, wrote an A to Z of recovery, offering practical tips and commonsense advice. For ''C'' she wrote, simply, ''Chauvel Circle, Chapman - a real circle of friends who know what's what!'