Battling the advancing flames

Last updated 11:30 18/01/2013

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Devastating Wither Hills fires still burn in memory Fire danger remains high No coming back

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Boxing Day fires 2000 remembered: At first it looked like a dust cloud. Five minutes later, it was a wall of flames almost 300 metres long and raging against their fence.

For Steve and Julia Healy the speed of the Boxing Day fires in 2000 are something they won't ever forget. The couple were among the first to spot the fires on the hot, windy day. The family, Steve, Julia and their baby son Braden, were having a barbecue with friends at their home in Ashwood Dr on the lower reaches of the Wither Hills when they spotted the smoke. "It looked like dust. We were leaning on the fence chatting and someone said that's a bit of smoke. We sort of said no, then it got more obvious so Julia went to phone the fire brigade. By the time they got here, less than 10 minutes, it had come three quarters of a mile to our place."

Mrs Healy said rubberneckers filled the street blocking the fire brigade's entrance, but about 30-40 people also helped out, bucketing water from the pool or wetting their own T-shirts and jackets to try and beat back the flames.

"Our neighbour was throwing water on the fire and all of a sudden the wind blew and the flames encircled him. You see these things on movies, but you don't realise until you see it in real life."

Eventually though, they had to leave.

"We thought the house was gone, then there was a wooshing sound, the wind changed and miraculously it [the fire] changed direction." The house was badly smoke damaged and swamped for months in layers of black dust like volcanic ash, but unburnt.

Miraculously no people were killed or seriously injured in the fires, but Mr Healy said he saw the real cost the next day when he joined a team helping farmer Mark Smith clear up some of the corpses of his dead animals. Today the paddocks around the Healy's old home are covered in houses and many more people use the farm park.

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- The Marlborough Express


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