Australian bushfires: A lifetime of memories lost to the flames at Conjola Park

GONE: The remains of my father's two-storey house in Conjola Park, with the Mazda intact beside the driveway.
GONE: The remains of my father's two-storey house in Conjola Park, with the Mazda intact beside the driveway.

As twin fire balls roared through Conjola Park on the morning of New Year's Eve, two of my father's neighbours tried to save his house by putting out spot fires with bottles of Coke.

But their efforts were in vain, and the two-storey house, packed with family history and mementoes of a lifetime of travel and reading and music, collapsed into a blackened pile of bricks and ash.

The oven in the upstairs kitchen ended up where the ground-floor piano had stood, in a room where my stepmother, Cecily, gave music lessons.

The family tree my historian father, Roger, had spent countless hours researching. Gone. His half-written family memoir. Gone. The sewing box my carpenter grandfather had made for my grandmother. Gone.

Cecily's precious crystal cabinet, stacked with her grandparents' wedding presents from 1917; the manuscript of a book she had written on music theory; my dad's collection of a thousand or so detective novels; the landscapes he had painted; countless old family photographs; a much-loved 19th century chair. All gone.

ALL IS LOST: My father and stepmother were out shopping when fire destroyed their house.

ALL IS LOST: My father and stepmother were out shopping when fire destroyed their house.

My father was a metallurgist at BHP's Newcastle steelworks in the 1970s and '80s and a passionate coach, player and committee member at Raymond Terrace cricket club.

He changed career mid-stream, earned a history degree at Newcastle University then spent the rest of his working life as a curator and conservator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

He and Cecily moved to the South Coast town of Lake Conjola 20 years ago, built a house at the end of a dirt road, surrounded by bush, then moved into the more suburban Conjola Park five years ago to escape the threat of fires.

On the morning of New Year's Eve, they drove to the nearby town of Milton for some shopping and a hairdressing appointment. They had a bag packed with valuables but left it beside their bed.

INCINERATED: A Google satellite image showing the location of my father's house in Conjola Park. Fire swept in from the west, jumped the Princes Highway and destroyed more than 100 houses.

INCINERATED: A Google satellite image showing the location of my father's house in Conjola Park. Fire swept in from the west, jumped the Princes Highway and destroyed more than 100 houses.

By the time they tried to return home, about 10.45am, police had blocked the Princes Highway.

"We could see a column of black smoke when we came out the hairdresser's, and I said, 'That looks close to our house,'" my father said.

They took refuge at a friend's house and waited it out for a day and a half before finding out their home was lost, one of more than 100 consumed by flames in the town.

On Friday, three days after the fire, they were allowed back in. The fire had been so hot it had melted the paint off cars, but my father's old Mazda station wagon was standing unscathed in front of the ruined house. It started first time.

It is a measure of his recent luck that having his house burn down might not have been the worst thing to happen to my father in 2019, although it is a strong contender.

Scammers removed $21,000 from he and Cecily's savings account early in the year. The bank eventually refunded the money, but only after a stressful few months.

He was then diagnosed with cancer and had most of one lung removed in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in July.

Cecily said their friends and the local community had been "incredibly kind".

The Jewish community in Nowra has raised $15,000 in crowd funding to help them get back on their feet. One friend has offered them her holiday house to stay in for at least a month, and another has volunteered a piano so Cecily can keep teaching.

"We're just happy to be alive," Cecily said.

"We had only the clothes we wore, but luckily we had brought some family photo albums to Sydney in December and left them with my oldest daughter."

Like some of their neighbours, they have vowed not to rebuild.

And, yes, they were insured.

This story How my father lost everything in the NSW bushfires first appeared on Newcastle Herald.