Scars remain 10 years after Tenterden fires

Rhianna KingThe West Australian
Scars remain 10 years after Tenterden fires
Camera IconScars remain 10 years after Tenterden fires Credit: The West Australian

Little evidence remains of the devastating blaze that tore through Tenterden 10 years ago.

Crops have been replanted, the Albany Highway is no longer framed by blackened trees and the community hall has been rebuilt after being destroyed by the fire, sparked by clashing power lines on a 42C day, that claimed the lives of two women.

But while life has moved on for the tiny farming community, 320km south-east of Perth, it remains scarred.

Christmas is a difficult time for Cranbrook siblings Toni, Greg and David Melia. Their mum Lorraine, 46, had only recently become a grandmother to Ruby and Storm, now aged 10, when she was engulfed by the ash-laden, suffocating heat while at her partner Dan Finlay's property.

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Mr Finlay's mother, Judith Ward, 59, also died as the women tried to flee what was later described as a "tornado of flames".

"It left a big hole in our family," Ms Melia said. "She was a great mum so she would've been an awesome grandma."

The family was hit by tragedy again in March last year when Greg's six-year-old daughter, named Destiny Lorraine after her grandmother, died in Princess Margaret Hospital from congenital heart problems.

"She was the biggest fighter I've ever seen," Mr Melia said of his daughter.

As was the case when the Melias lost their mother, the Tenterden and Cranbrook communities rallied around the family.

"The community has been really important, after the fire they were there for us and while Destiny was in hospital people would do whatever we needed," Mr Melia said.

"Ladies like Jan Pope and Sandy Lehmann will do whatever needs to be done and get another 50 people to help out by the next day."

Mrs Lehmann, the bushfire recovery committee chairwoman, and Mrs Pope, now Cranbrook Shire president, played a vital role in the weeks and months after the fire.

Mrs Pope wiped away a tear as she reflected on the day their little town was torn apart.

It was obvious from early in the morning that December 27, 2003, was "going to be a shocker".

"The heat blasted in from the north-west, it was so hot before 6am that I was hanging the sheets and they were drying straight away," Mrs Pope said.

Her husband Murray said stepping outside was like walking into a furnace.

Most of the town's residents were keeping cool inside, eating Christmas leftovers and watching the Boxing Day Test, when the power lines clashed about 1.15pm, sparking a fire in the dry wheat stubble below.

By the end of the day, the fire had claimed the lives of Mrs Ward and Ms Melia, destroyed five homes, 15,000 stock, 750km of fencing and 15,000ha of pasture, crop and bush.

Western Power would later be fined $17,500 after State coroner Alastair Hope found it had caused the fatal fire and raised serious concerns about the company's maintenance and management practices.

Mr Pope, who co-ordinated donations of feed and fodder, recalled visiting friends John and Michelle Davis, whose property was among the worst affected.

"We had to inspect and shoot all his sheep, and dig holes for sheep to be put into. That was pretty raw, to deal with that. He was so proud of his farm and to see it devastated like that, it was shocking," he said. Mrs Pope said she would never forget the generosity of strangers who gave time, money, feed and equipment to help those in need.

"People said how extraordinary it was, but it's what people do when extraordinary things happen," she said.

Deb and Butch Packard still haven't finished fixing fences around their property.

"The workload and the pressure to recover was tough," Mrs Packard said. "It has been 10 years of fairly much battling."

She can still vividly recall the wall of heat that approached their property.

"You woke up knowing the day was bad, you had an apprehension," she said. "Then the power was cut and in our minds we were thinking there was trouble somewhere close. But when the fire got closer, the enormousness of it, that's when it really hit."

While Mr Packard, the town's fire captain, fought the fire Mrs Packard took her children and neighbours to a dam close to the house. "There was nowhere to go, we were either going to live or die," she said.

Mr Packard, who is now the chief fire officer for the Cranbrook Shire, said he too felt humbled by the volunteer efforts of strangers in surrounding areas.

Later, standing outside the Tenterden Hall, rebuilt by locals in 2008, Sandy Lehmann said this strong sense of mateship and neighbours looking out for one another still existed.

"There are some people who will never, ever recover," she said.

"But at the time (of the fire) people kept supporting each other for weeks, and months afterwards, and even now they're still doing it."

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