Shire fire horror still lingers 20 years on

Sutherland Shire was ravaged by bushfires for five days in January 1994. Dozens of homes were destroyed and one woman lost her life. Twenty years on, the memories of the shire’s darkest days are still etched in the minds of some, writes Sheree Mutton.

IT TOOK just a few minutes for a raging bushfire to engulf parts of Como West, Jannali and Bonnet Bay on the afternoon of January 8, 1994.

As swirling winds whipped up the fire front about 3pm, residents watched fireballs land across the valley and ignite trees and homes.

Many evacuated, while others chose to stay and defend their homes from the ferocious flames, alongside firefighters from local brigades and others.

After dropping off their two young daughters at a safer location, Barbara Moore and her husband Phil, along with his brother and wife, decided to stay with their house on Lincoln Crescent.

‘‘We thought we would stay behind and put out the spot fires,’’ she recalls.

‘‘My husband was on the roof with a hose for most of the day, but the water was evaporating.

‘‘The wind picked up and we went inside and lined the doors with wet towels.’’

With flames already at the end of their street, the group huddled inside their bathroom, hoping the fire would pass.

‘‘We heard the glass cracking and smoke was coming in, so we crawled out of the house.

‘‘It came so quickly. There was no time to think.’’

Mrs Moore and her family managed to escape and flag down a firefighter.

‘‘He was very surprised to see us,’’ she said.

‘‘We just didn’t know how widespread the fire was.’’

Down the street their neighbour, Pauline Mary O’Neil, 42, died as she rushed from her house to the backyard swimming pool.

A total of 91 buildings were destroyed, including Como West Public School and

 Como West Presbyterian Church.

Five houses at Bangor and nine at Alfords Point were also lost.

The fire threatened homes at Illawong before leaping half a kilometre across the Georges River and into bushland near properties at Lugarno.

More than 5000 residents were evacuated and about 25 square kilometres of bushland burnt out.

In the days after, amid the rubble and blackened ruins where homes once stood, firefighters and residents embraced each other in disbelief.

Clubs and other community organisations hosted fund-raisers, collected donations and provided emergency accommodation. 

‘‘Everybody pitched in to help us rebuild and get through that dreadful time,’’ Mrs Moore said.

‘‘It was the community that helped us get our lives back together.’’

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said on Tuesday those fires and the coronial inquest that followed them were the catalyst for forming today’s modern Rural Fire Service.

‘‘The 1994 bushfires were a watershed moment, not only for the people of NSW but for the broader firefighting community,’’ he said.

‘‘It is true to say we’ve come a long way in the past 20 years and we have learnt a lot from these experiences.’’

PARK BURNS

The 1994 bushfires also affected southern parts of the shire, including Bundeena, Maianbar, Heathcote and the Royal National Park. 

In a matter of hours on Thursday, January 6, 16,000 hectares of bushland in the Royal National Park were alight, with the fire destroying 98 percent of virgin bushland.

The fires east of Heathcote were out of control, with a 500-metre front burning towards the suburbs of Bundeena and Maianbar.

Fire tankers south of the flames couldn’t get into either suburb. 

For four terrifying hours residents fought to save their homes against a wall of flame.

At 5pm the first tankers made it through and fire crews found householders fighting the flames. By 8pm the situation was under control.  — Tamara Gasser

Tea and sympathy

Jannali Uniting Church will host an afternoon tea on Sunday at 2.30pm for those residents and firefighters affected by the 1994 bushfires. Reverend Salesi Faupula said the community event was a time to reflect and connect with others on the 20th anniversary. 

Lucky escape: Phil Moore, Bob Ivory, Ursula Ivory, Barbara Moore, Noel Bockett and Bob Birkhead lost their homes in Lincoln Crescent during the 1994 bushfires. Picture: Chris Lane

Lucky escape: Phil Moore, Bob Ivory, Ursula Ivory, Barbara Moore, Noel Bockett and Bob Birkhead lost their homes in Lincoln Crescent during the 1994 bushfires. Picture: Chris Lane

Flashback: ‘‘Hope in hell!’’ was the headline on Tuesday, January 11, in a special edition of the Leader that featured images of houses ablaze and exhausted firefighters.

Flashback: ‘‘Hope in hell!’’ was the headline on Tuesday, January 11, in a special edition of the Leader that featured images of houses ablaze and exhausted firefighters.

Leaver coverage at the time.

Leaver coverage at the time.

Leader coverage

Leader coverage

What are your memories of the 1994 bushfires?

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