Out of the Ashes: The right time to go

The Mail-Times has been outlining some of the personal stories of Grampians bushfire survivors so readers can learn lessons from their experiences.

The Out of the Ashes series profiles the people who suffered during the fires, which started on January 15 and razed homes, properties and more than 55,100 hectares of park and private land.

Last month, Country Fire Authority District 17 stalwart Kevin Bolwell introduced Mail-Times journalist EMMA D’AGOSTINO to a handful of Wartook residents.

This is Wartook resident Judith Thompson’s story.

WARTOOK mother and son Judith and Rodney Thompson left their family home with 10 minutes to spare as the Grampians bushfire burnt around them.

They had been preparing to stay and defend their property at Smiths Road on January 16.

But it was not until about 4.30pm that it became evident what a battle they would have on their hands.

“By that stage, the helicopters were flying almost directly overhead,” Mrs Thompson said.

“We could see the big, dark, smoke plume coming, going right up and overhead.

“Then, a little bit of ash started coming down.

“My son looked at me and said Ella, my grand-daughter, has lost grandpa this year. 

“It would be awful if someone had to go and tell that her dad and grandma had died too.”

Mrs Thompson knew the window of opportunity to leave was closing quickly.

“If we didn’t leave in 10 minutes, it would be too late,” she said.

“I grabbed four hangers of clothes out of the wardrobe and stuffed them into a case with a toiletries bag.

“I think Rodney had one change of clothes.”

They stuffed their belongings into the car, along with a bucket of water, some towels and a woollen blanket.

“We got out to the roadblock at 5.02pm,” Mrs Thompson said.

The fire tore through the property about an hour later.

“It was a good decision, leaving, I’m quite sure of that now,” Mrs Thompson said.

They returned to the property almost a fortnight later to find the family home still standing.

The Thompsons had been preparing for a fire long before January.

“We lived in areas where there had been bushfires previously, right back to 1969 with the Lara fire,” Mrs Thompson said.

“My husband’s family lived in Lara.”

More than 20 people died in the Lara fire, including 17 motorists trapped on the road from Geelong to Melbourne.

The fire hit three days before their wedding.

“We had friends who couldn’t come to our wedding because they had lost things, and there were looters around so they wouldn’t leave home,” Mrs Thompson said.

“That was my introduction to bushfires.”

The Thompsons designed and built their Wartook home to be as fireproof as possible.

“It has a steel frame encased in straw bales with a concrete render on it,” Mrs Thompson said.

Each window has its own corrugated iron cover.

The roof is fitted with a sprinkler system.

Outside the house is a shipping container buried in the earth.

Many of Mrs Thompson’s belongings were in the makeshift fire bunker when the fire hit.

Before she and her son left the property, they covered the walls of the family home in a fire retardant gel her husband David had bought.

“My husband died in August last year, so he never got to see all the work that he did and how effective it was,” Mrs Thompson said.

When Mr Thompson became unwell, Rodney quit his job in Geelong and moved into a small cottage on his parents’ property.

Unlike the family home, there was nothing especially fireproof about the cottage’s infrastructure.

It burnt when the fire tore through, destroying all of Rodney’s belongings.

Mrs Thompson feared her son, 40, would have to start again.

But while he might have lost many things, he still had his daughter Ella and his mother.

A few weeks before the Grampians bushfire, Wartook residents brushed up on their fire protection skills.

“About 18 months ago, we started a community fireguard here,” Mrs Thompson said.

“My husband was the chief co-ordinator.”

When Mr Thompson died, Rodney took up the position.

Early meetings involved training sessions with the Country Fire Authority, which equipped Wartook residents with tactics which later helped keep themselves and their neighbours safe.

A CFA member also did bushfire assessments at Wartook properties.

At the meeting before the fire, Mrs Thompson said Rodney bought a lot of buckets and some chocolates, and rewarded people with chocolate for identifying unsafe fire practices.

“Things like seeing people up on their roof in thongs and a singlet, or leaving things to the last minute,” Mrs Thompson said.

“Then he gave everyone a bucket, because he saw the need for people to have more buckets to keep water around the place.”

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