Precious memories lost to flames

FAST FLAMES: Fire engulfs Maria and Roger Hart’s double garage in Richmond yesterday afternoon.
FAST FLAMES: Fire engulfs Maria and Roger Hart’s double garage in Richmond yesterday afternoon.

Gunpowder, ammunition, petrol, a car and several lifetimes of memories were lost when a double garage was engulfed by a fierce fire in Richmond.

Maria and Roger Hart were alerted to the blaze yesterday afternoon by two strangers, who ran into their yard and helped them drive vehicles away from the fire and pull chainsaws, a lawnmower and two motorcycles out of the garage before it was engulfed by the flames.

The building was destroyed in the blaze, which also threatened the couple's home on the corner of Hart Rd and Hill St.

Mrs Hart said the garage's electric doors jammed but one of the young men ripped one door open. The door shielding her near-new Suzuki Swift car would not budge, however, and it was destroyed.

This morning the couple were sifting through the charred remains of family photographs and documents, hunting and tramping gear, and their son's personal belongings, which he had put into storage while he was in England.

"I'd been in there two or three minutes earlier, polishing my helmet," Mrs Hart said. "The fire would have been in the roof then. I walked over to where Roger was washing his bike, and then these strangers told us the shed was on fire."

The couple said they wanted to thank the two men, who drove two cars parked near the garage to safety; friend Tony Inwood, who played a hose on their house while the guttering buckled in the heat and the hairs on the backs of his legs were singed; Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne, who arrived and helped to move machinery; and friends Rhonda and Nigel Muir, who took the Harts' dog away and later brought them dinner.

The Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade was "absolutely fantastic", Mr Hart said.

He said "it was like World War III" when gas canisters and ammunition in the garage started exploding. Mrs Hart dashed to an adjoining shed to release her pigeons.

Mr Kempthorne, who lives 200 metres away, cycled to the scene after noticing what he described as an unusual fire. "It was burning pretty fiercely. It was pretty traumatic for them," he said.

The wooden villa next to the garage nearly went up as well, said Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade chief Ralph Lonsdale.

"The house was steaming - some of the spouting buckled. Lots of trees and garden around the garage all burnt. It was a developing and moving fire."

The Harts were alerted to the fire when they heard something go "bang", Mr Lonsdale said.

Mr Hart was a hunter who made his own ammunition, he said, and had three barrels of gunpowder in the garage, as well as bullets, boating petrol, a lawnmower and other equipment.

Mr Hart was hit in the back by an exploding cartridge case but was uninjured, he said.

Mr Kempthorne and two others moved a motorcycle from the garage. A utility was also saved.

The Harts fought the fire with garden hoses until firefighters arrived.

Richmond and Stoke volunteer firefighters, the Appleby fire force and a Fire Service command unit from Nelson went to the blaze.

Mr Lonsdale said the fire was not suspicious and the cause was accidental, but he would not provide details, saying the brigade was waiting for insurance investigators.

It was a good example of the usefulness of having smoke alarms in a garage as well a home, especially if it was a basement garage, he said.

Mr Kempthorne said that while the firefighters quickly brought the blaze under control, it had been a good lesson on how quickly a fire could take hold.

"The lesson for me if is there's a fire and it looks as if it is getting away, phone 111, which [the Harts] did."