The night Wairewa burnt

The night Wairewa burnt

Robert Geddes lives with his wife, Roslyn, in the heart of Wairewa, a small rural community of about 80 people, located in a small valley off the Princes Highway, about 34 kilometres from Orbost.

Better known to his friends and neighbours as ‘Red’, Mr Geddes was born in 1950 and grew up in the tiny enclave.

His parents, Margaret and Jim, were long-time residents of Wairewa.

After a few years in school, Mr Geddes, like his father, became a timber worker before later driving trucks.

He’s remained in Wairewa because it’s the only home he has ever known and in the lifetime he has spent there has been a prominent member of the local CFA for 50 years, serving about 20 of those years as captain of the brigade.

During his time in the CFA, Mr Geddes has borne witness to quite a few fires, but not one quite like that which tore its way through the Wairewa Valley about an hour before midnight on December 30.

Mr Geddes said he had been informed of the nasty weather heading towards Wairewa and, as an experienced fireman, knew the potential for fires that had been burning over near Bruthen could quickly accelerate.

He made the decision to take his wife, who suffers from poor health, to family in Lindenow on the Monday afternoon.

Mr Geddes’ family members had also dropped by Wairewa to take away family heirlooms from his late mother’s cottage, which shares the three-acre plot of land with Roslyn and Robert’s home.

Packing a small overnight bag for his wife, Mr Geddes drove her to Lindenow with Oscar the dog.

Before leaving he placed four sprinklers around the family home and turned them on.

In the week prior he had cleaned up around the property in a bid to remove any fuel load.

Mr Geddes had intended to return home that evening, but says upon making it to Bairnsdale was informed the Princes Highway had been blocked, thwarting his plans.

The following day he made it back to Wairewa to discover his house and sheds a pile of twisted and burnt iron.

Miraculously his late mother’s unprotected and uninsured cottage, with grass growing up around its walls, had survived.

“It burnt to the back door of her house and went out. The fire obviously didn’t want it,” Mr Geddes said.

Instead, the fire skipped around the small acreage burning machinery, including a bulldozer, backhoe, four-wheel-drive, a large tractor and ute, along with various other farm implements.

“It burnt all my equipment I use regularly for fencing,” Mr Geddes said.

“My little tractor survived though.”

A second ute parked in the middle of his back yard was relatively unscathed. So too his trailer which was parked alongside it. Only its wheels were burnt off.

Sadly, four cows and seven of his eight pet sheep either perished in the inferno or had to be euthanized.

One lonely sheep was wandering through the burnt landscape when the Advertiser visited this week.

“It’s been looking for its mates,” Mr Geddes said.

“We lost all our clothes, but I guess we’re lucky because we until we rebuild the main house,” Mr Geddes said.

“We will probably rebuild in here somewhere,” Mr Geddes said, motioning to an area that the fires didn’t burn.

Mr Geddes plans to stay in Lindenow until his cousin, who’s a builder, can make repairs to the bedroom in his mother’s old house.

“We’ll probably live at Lindenow for a while, it’s free board and lodgings there,” Mr Geddes said with a grin, demonstrating the fires had failed to smother his sense of humour.

While the ferocity of the bushfire swallowed 11 homes in Wairewa, the flames by-passed many others.

The leaves on the trees in the valley stand rigid, all pointing in the same direction, as if frozen in shock at the speed and intensity of the inferno.

“It’s just weird, I’ve never seen a fire like it and I’ve seen a few,” Mr Geddes said.

“It’s the first one I know of that has been through the valley, we’ve had little ones, but not of this scale.”

Mr Geddes said those that stayed behind when the fire roared through described the winds swirling and twisting prior to impact.

The power is still out in parts of Wairewa with many of the residents whose homes were saved using generators to get by.

Across the paddocks, Mr Geddes’ brother-in-law, Melshi Cella, was bunkered down in his farmhouse, on 160 acres, when the fires ripped through.

The 76-year-old stayed in the house until it too was engulfed in flames around 11pm.

In the darkness, Mr Cella managed to find his way out and scrambled down to the creek, where he sheltered for the night, before trying to walk out along the main road early the following morning.

“Some guys from DELWP picked him up,” Mr Geddes said, who described the Cella residence as a pile of rubble.

In the old schoolhouse across the road from the Geddes’ property, young Wairewa CFA Lieutenant, Jadon Dennis, had left his home to report for duty at the brigade’s station, a mere stone’s throw down the road from his own property.

“I was on and off duty on the night as I was also defending my own house,” Mr Dennis said.

The other fire crews on duty that evening were all from out of town with many having been brought in from other parts of Victoria.

About 15-20 residents had already taken shelter in the Wairewa tennis hall, which was deemed the safest place to be as the inferno drew closer.

Mr Dennis recalls squirting his fire hose on the tennis hall to protect those huddled inside before racing down to the Davies’ dairy to put out a pile of logs that had ignited around the house.

At his own property, Mr Dennis’ shed had caught fire, so, with his sister-in-law Katie Trevaskis in tow, he took off in a vain attempt to save it.

While he was unable to save the shed and the vehicle inside, he did manage to protect the 106-year-old school house in which he resides, using his own ute and water trailer.

Mr Dennis also saved Ken and Julie Saunders’ house from catching alight by extinguishing a fire in their wood shed.

Mr Saunders was watering his untouched lettuce on his acreage on Wednesday and told the Advertiser, “Jadon actually saved our house. He gave it a good squirt; it wouldn’t be here otherwise”.

A CFA member for four years, Mr Dennis described the blaze as “a wildfire, it was uncontrollable”.

“It sounded like a volcano from five kilometres away and as it came through the valley it was like a steam train,” he said.

“Red’s home was fully engulfed by flames very quickly.” As Mr Geddes (Red) sifted through the charred remains of what’s left of his property, he said, “in hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t here”. “You think to yourself if I was here I could have done something. You can always replace all this, but you can’t buy a life,” he said.

Mr Geddes’ main house and shedding were fully insured and he says dealing with the insurance company has been “perfect”.

IMAGE: The home of 69-year-old Robert ‘Red’ Geddes in Trevaskis Road, Wairewa, was flattened following the bushfires, but his mother’s cottage located on the same property, was inexplicably spared in the recent bushfires. K18-3659