ACT News


Relics of the ashes to forever

They are the relics of the firestorm. Items plucked from the rubble of homes. Where a garden gnome could become as precious as a wedding ring because it survived and it was a link to another life, a little storehouse of memories. A pair of slippers are framed because, inexplicably, they were the only things that didn't burn, sitting, in all their surreal pink fluffiness, where the front steps used to be.

Some salvaged possessions were stumbled upon, others were plucked from the ash triumphantly after days of sifting in the aftermath of the January 18 firestorm in 2003 when almost 500 homes were destroyed in Canberra. Many people speak of picking up things that looked intact - a book, a pearl from a necklace - only for them to dissolve into dust when they were touched, transformed by the intense heat.

''It was like snow, it just sort of melted in your hand,'' Duffy resident Liz Tilley said of the books they thought had survived but were just mirages.

Ten years ago, Chris Spence was working at the Belconnen remand centre for ACT Corrective Services. What was discovered in the powdery mess that used to be his home in Duffy still provokes chills a decade later. It was a tiny piece of paper, a remnant of a Trivial Pursuit question that asked, of all the things, a question about the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983.

The words ''Australian'', ''disaster'' and ''Ash Wednesday'' were still visible on the scorched piece of paper which his friend found in a bundle of heat-compressed paper in the ruins of the rented house in Somerset Street.

''As he brushed the paper, everything else crumbled and it was the only bit still in his hand. It was just so ironic that it was the only part of the question you can read. We just laughed. I mean, what else can you do?'' Mr Spence said at the time.


The little piece of paper is now laminated and kept in Mr Spence's office on the central coast of NSW. Reflecting the passage of time since the firestorm, he is now the Liberal Member for The Entrance in the O'Farrell government after a career change that initially saw him become a member of One Nation and work for Pauline Hanson's right-hand man and then NSW politician, David Oldfield.

A dragon his mother gave him as a teenager, the key he received from his father on his 21st and his grandfather's coin collection also survived, some more intact that others.

While Mr Spence values those items, his overwhelming feeling 10 years after the fire is gratitude. He had worked the night before and was asleep at home, oblivious to the worsening conditions until friends rang and woke him.

''I think I was pretty lucky in that respect because, as we all know, it certainly hit pretty fast,'' he said.

Liz Tilley and John Flannery and their children Patrick, Conor, and Rosie, lost everything when their home in Warragamba Avenue in Duffy was destroyed in the firestorm.

They moved into their rebuilt home in August, 2004. The handsome front door features a small brass door knocker with the words ''Reims Gargoyle''. It had also been on the door of their destroyed home.

''All I know is that it's old and it came from my great aunt,'' Ms Tilley said.

''The interesting thing is that we were specifically looking for it as we were going through the ashes. We really didn't find much at all.''

Mr Flannery said they had a team of people going through the rumble. Just before the fires, he'd convinced his mother to let him move a much-loved piano from their family home in Parkes in NSW to their home in Duffy.

''All that was left of the piano was the piano wire,'' he said. ''And bits of ceramics and tin were the other things found by the fossickers.''

Ms Tilley thinks it was her brother who eventually found the door-knocker. ''And the cry went up, 'I've found it! I've found it','' she said. ''And it was completely black. I spent a lot time after that with Brasso polishing and polishing that and we put it on our new door. It was just something to remember from the old house.''

It was virtually their only surviving possession. But in the panic to leave the house, Ms Tilley also grabbed a clock that belonged to her grandfather and a Laura Ashley doona cover for then two-year-old Rosie.

''I'd just taken it off lay-by and I thought, 'I'll be buggered if I'm going to let that burn','' she said.

Pat and Sarah Moloney lost their home down the street from the Tilleys in Warragamba Avenue. They were back in their rebuilt home seven months after the firestorm (despite the efforts of a thief who stole their new kitchen just before they moved in.) Mrs Moloney's parents' also lost their home around the corner in Eucumbene Drive.

Two things were salvaged from the rubble: a horse statue Mr Moloney's brother brought back from Italy and the No.77 house number on a bit of charred timber. The statue (''it used to be yellow and now it's a dodgy grey'') has pride of place on a shelf high in the kitchen. The house number is in the outside entertainment area, a place often filled with the laughter of family and friends.

''They were basically the two things left that were recognisable because our house was levelled, absolutely levelled,'' Mr Moloney said.

''When the house went, we were down the coast and the insurance assessor said basically we were lucky we weren't here because this was where the front came through, so our house virtually exploded. There wasn't much to find.''

Peter Prammar rebuilt his family's home in Duffy himself after the firestorm. A keen cyclist, he has kept for the last 10 years a twisted, ruined racing bike frame made for him by Sydney man Paul Hillbrick.

''I just kept it because when we went to the house there was lot of rubble and crap everywhere but I just noticed the bike frame was standing up against the wall and I just grabbed it,'' he said. ''I've kept it in the garage and also in the garden. I had good times on that bike. It wasn't kept as a reminder of the fires or anything like that.''

Mr Hillbrick went on to make two more bike frames for Mr Prammar after the fires.

''And he only charged me for one of them and said, 'This is to replace the old one'. I suppose when I look at the frame I think more of the generosity of him,'' he said.

Gail and Laurence Buchanan's home in Eucumbene Drive in Duffy was destroyed by the firestorm, as was the home of her mother Kath Leggatt in Somerset Street, Duffy.

In the horrific conditions of the approaching firestorm, the Buchanans rescued Mrs Leggatt from her home, Mr Buchanan literally lifting her out of her slippers to get her into the car.

When the family returned to the rubble of her home the next day, nothing was left. Except the slippers.

''Not even scorched,'' Mrs Buchanan said. ''It was the most surreal thing we'd ever seen. We all just stood there looking at them and thinking, 'Who took them away and put them back there?'. It made no sense whatsoever.''

Mrs Leggatt passed away just over a year after the firestorm. At her funeral ''her slippers were there as basically all that was really left of her life.'' They are now framed and a treasured possession of the Buchanans.

Jeremy Lasek and his wife Dorte Ekelund found some reason to laugh among the ruins of their Chapman home after the firestorm. Among the very few things they retrieved was the cover of a cookbook - Barbecue and Outdoor Entertaining, featuring recipes such as roasted capsicum.

''Dorte found it and she just laughed and said, 'We've got to keep that','' Mr Lasek said. ''It was very fragile and the challenge was to find a framer who could frame it so we could see both sides of it.

''We just thought it was a very unique keepsake and it gave us a smile. We hadn't had a lot to smile about related to that incident. This is the one thing that sits in the kitchen and makes us smile. It's part of our life now.''

Ric Hingee has a unique sculptural reminder of the fires. His extensive coin collection melted in the inferno of the firestorm, the protective plastic containers melding the mass together. The collection was kept in a ''supposedly fire-proof'' safe.

''The safe fell through the floor and landed on its corner and everything melted into the corner,'' he said.

''It certainly brings back memories.''

Mr Hingee said they also searched for weeks to find a bronze wombat that had been a much-loved gift to his son Christopher.

''I finally found a melted piece of concrete and it felt heavier than it should and when I broke open the concrete, there was the wombat. So each of these things have a story,'' he said. ''You look at these things and they bring back lots of memories, not always bad ones. You think about the person who gave them to you in the first place.''

Jane Smyth said she kept a few bits and pieces from the rubble of her former home in Chapman including an old children's toy called a donkey engine. Part of her recovery has been trying not to put too much store in the retrieved items as she and her husband Rick relocated to Narrabundah.

''They're just kept with the junk in the garage, they're not sacred at all,'' she said.

''We certainly don't get sad about material things we've lost. We joke about it. If we can't find something we say, 'Oh it's probably in Chapman'.''

Her children did find her mother's wedding ring in the rubble. She does keep it with other charred jewellery but usually ''can't bear'' to look at the pieces.