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Bushfires 2019: "We're in trouble" - the day of no return as Crestwood-Lake Cathie erupt in flames

Watch and wait: Sancrox-Thrumster RFS crews at The Ruins Way watching to see if the wind will impact the fire's direction. Photo: Tracey Fairhurst.

Watch and wait: Sancrox-Thrumster RFS crews at The Ruins Way watching to see if the wind will impact the fire's direction. Photo: Tracey Fairhurst.

ON October 26, 2019 a dry afternoon thunderstorm produced a lightning strike that hit bushland at the back of Crestwood estate in Port Macquarie.

Small bushfires were already burning across the Mid North Coast and the Lindfield Park fire, simmering near Port Macquarie airport since July, continued to prove problematic for fire crews.

Fire crews were already in bushfire season mode and the hot, dry weather conditions were an early warning it was going to be a long one.

Fire glow: A shot of the Crestwood fire burning overnight as seen from the North Shore of Port Macquarie. Photo: Patrick Linehan.

Fire glow: A shot of the Crestwood fire burning overnight as seen from the North Shore of Port Macquarie. Photo: Patrick Linehan.

The Crestwood fire erupted in a small area of bushland with the coastal heath, melaleuca and tea tree producing a lot of smoke making the blaze appear far worse than it actually was at that time.

The high oil content of both species means they produce large amounts of black smoke.

But a lot can change in 48 hours on a fire front and by the afternoon of Monday, October 28 with containment lines and backburning keeping this small 40 hectare fire at bay, everything depended on the wind.

On the normally quiet residential streets of Innes Lake and Crestwood, Rural Fire Service crews were rolling in and using fire trails to access the back end of the blaze which had now produced a spot fire further south in difficult terrain and swamp.

The aim was to keep the fire burning in a south-westerly direction toward Lake Innes, a large body of water where it could be managed.

Photo: Lisa Nicalah Sophiah.

Photo: Lisa Nicalah Sophiah.

Fire trucks were parked on the hill at the top of The Ruins Way overlooking the bushland now billowing with smoke which was now capturing the attention of residents who were all quietly, and nervously, watching from their front yards.

Sancrox-Thrumster RFS Aaron Hall said while accessibility was proving challenging, it would be the wind that determined what happened next.

"We want it to keep burning that way," he said, pointing in the direction of Lake Innes.

"If the wind changes and it heads towards Lake Cathie, we're in trouble."

Within hours, that nightmare became a reality.

A Large Air Tanker (LAT) aircraft was called in and worked to strengthen containment lines on the north western edge of the fire to protect homes.

It was a sight many of us had never seen before, but that plane and its plume of pink fire retardant would become all too familiar in the weeks to come.

Then, on October 29, Mother Nature unleashed a fire storm. By mid-afternoon, we were in an emergency.

One hundred firefighters, 30 trucks and 10 aircraft were battering Lake Cathie with everything they had. The fire had ripped across 1500 hectares and was threatening the southern villages of Lake Cathie and Bonny Hills.

Residents were evacuated from their homes, children were moved to safety at a nearby school and roads were closed to all traffic from the Pacific Highway east to Ocean Drive.

The skies were red and the air was thick with smoke as fire crews were once again pushed to the extreme.

Waterbombing efforts continue as the Crestwood fire erupts and moves again towards Lake Cathie. Photo: Rich Shaw, Richscape Photography.

Waterbombing efforts continue as the Crestwood fire erupts and moves again towards Lake Cathie. Photo: Rich Shaw, Richscape Photography.

Residents in affected areas near Kenwood Drive, Long Point Drive and Houston Mitchell Drive urgently checked in on neighbours to ensure everyone was prepared if they had to flee.

There were cheers along the streets as Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW crews supported by police moved into the village.

We realised in that moment the real risk for our emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers. They were the frontline and had no idea the resilience and strength they'd have to draw on, and for how long, to keep us safe.

Eerie: The fire changed the landscape over Lake Cathie as it blanketed the region in smoke. Photo: Lisa Willows.

Eerie: The fire changed the landscape over Lake Cathie as it blanketed the region in smoke. Photo: Lisa Willows.

And a community was called to action.

Lake Cathie Bowling Club cooked up platters of food for evacuated residents who gathered at the lake reserve. North Haven Bowling Club fed exhausted firies.

Your Life Fitness Centre in Port Macquarie offered the use of showers and toilets for fire crews needing a break while Wauchope Show Society offered safe stables for livestock.

Laurieton United Servicemen's Club became the designated evacuation centre.

Quick break: The Wauchope RFS grab a coke and share a brief laugh before getting back out there.

Quick break: The Wauchope RFS grab a coke and share a brief laugh before getting back out there.

But we were not alone.

A large fire had erupted south of Laurieton at Harrington, flames were fanning homes at Forster-Tuncurry, evacuations were commencing at Willi Willi west of Kempsey and the Oxley Highway at Mount Seaview was shut.

The onslaught at Lake Cathie continued for seven relentless days and at 8.30pm on November 2, with 2880 hectares scorched, the Crestwood-Lake Cathie fire was declared under control.

The devastation was real but the efforts of fire crews even more extraordinary.

Lake Cathie RFB with support crews.

Lake Cathie RFB with support crews.

Every Rural Fire Brigade crew across the Hastings, supported on the ground by colleagues across the state, NSW Fire and Rescue, the State Emergency Service, National Parks and Wildlife, Forestry Corporation, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and emergency support units gave it all they had.

In the air, there was a squadron of fireboss aircraft, helicopters and the Large Air Tanker.

They weren't leaving until the job was done.

Aaron Hall grabs a quick nap. Photo: Facebook

Aaron Hall grabs a quick nap. Photo: Facebook

But the red skies, thick and unforgiving smoke, the sounds of water-bombing aircraft overhead for hours, sirens and rapidly changing RFS warnings across the region painted a more terrifying picture to come - the Mid North Coast was burning.

And when things got tough, it was the outpouring of thanks and gratitude from our community that kept our fire crews going.

Experts estimated between 200 and 350 koalas died when the fire ripped through crucial koala habitat. Just over two-thirds of the fire ground footprint was prime koala habitat.

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan said that made the aftermath of the fire a national tragedy.

But the red skies, thick and unforgiving smoke, the sounds of water-bombing aircraft overhead for hours, sirens and rapidly changing RFS warnings across the region painted a more terrifying picture to come - the Mid North Coast was burning.

It wasn't over yet.

  • The Port Macquarie News will re-visit the extraordinary few weeks in 2019 when the Mid North Coast burned in what has now been coined Black Summer. We will look back at the key moments, the amazing people and inspiring acts of kindness when our communities came together to survive, as well as what we have learned.
JOB DONE: The 2880 hectare Crestwood-Lake Innes fire has been declared under control. Photo: Lake Cathie RFB.

JOB DONE: The 2880 hectare Crestwood-Lake Innes fire has been declared under control. Photo: Lake Cathie RFB.

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