Illustration: Doug Tolhurst, former Olympian, of The Ridge Helensburgh, stayed and saved his home.
Christmas day started out fine, but with a strong westerly wind. The wind increased by lunchtime, but townsfolk busied themselves with the usual Christmas celebrations. Many headed out of town to be with family, others entertained family visitors. The local church services were well attended; all was normal.
After lunch a dark brown cloud came out of the Appin, Darkes Forest area. At first it blanketed Stanwell Tops, sweeping down into Stanwell Park. As it thickened, the Burgh crew down at the Park realized they were in for a massive bushfire. By the time they got up to the Burgh, the fire had already jumped the F6, the Princes Highway, down past Binners, Symbio, the Hindu Temple and was racing toward Stanwell Tops.
By late afternoon the power was off and the fire had reached the Ampol service Station, Busy Bee and the Mower Shop. It worked through to Mrs Lawson’s industrial area and took out a number of sheds – Helensburgh Metal Fabrications, owned by Michael Brooks, and Kurt Martison’s car restoration business. Rajani Road was next to feel the force of the fire, with one house in Excelsia Avenue totally destroyed.
In the meantime the fire had reached Stanwell Tops, devastating the Tops Convention Centre, and taking out properties owned by the Gilmour, Parker, Host, Saverino, McWilliams, Price, Green and Armstrong families. Mrs Luck’s home next to the Hindu Temple was nearly lost. Trent Luck heard about the fire and tried to get home and protect the property, but was stopped at Waterfall. So he parked the car and with three police chasing him, ran through the bush to the Burgh. “Mosley”, owned by Mrs. Loyd, was only just saved. The fire then moved to Otford.
The fire in West Helensburgh continued through Blue and Annette Blackwell’s property and by early evening had moved past the playing fields taking out homes in Laurina Avenue and The Ridge. Families who lost their homes were Godfrey, Doran, Oliphant, Warne, Marshall, Wilcox, Sidon and Crooks. Some homes were only partly damaged. Jimmy Powel’s home on the Ridge suffered major damage.
At the top end the fire continued, working through the back of Sunrise Nursery, through to the Cemetery to Walker Street where a further home was lost. The bottom end fire, fanned by the southwesterly, pressed on into the Garrawarra State Conservation Area rather than turning in on the residents of “Struggle Town.”
Residents on the fringes were evacuated to the centre of town settling in to the Worker’s Club and Community Center. With the fear that the fire was going to turn into the bottom end of town and link up with the top end fire, a general evacuation was ordered. Residents were ordered out of town, initially taking Walker Street and later Parkes Street then via the F6 to the evacuation center at Wollongong. Cars drove through fire on Walker Street and the F6. Although it was a general evacuation, the majority of men stayed to protect their homes. Some were bodily removed by the police, but when released, simply walked home. Others hid until the police gave up looking for them.
By midnight the main threat to the town had passed as the fire moved on toward Waterfall and Heathcote. Yet the problems were not over as the fire had taken out both power and telephone. With the sewerage system shut down there was now the threat of raw sewerage flowing into National Park. There was also a massive draw on the reservoir, such that filtered water could no longer be supplied to the town.
On the following day, Boxing Day, water tankers were brought in to meet fire fighting needs, sewerage was pumped and tankered out, and generators brought in to partially restore the sewerage line to Cronulla. The town remained closed down with no one allowed to return. Many locals did get back in by running barriers or sneaking through Otford (the police didn’t know there was a back way into the Burgh).
In the afternoon a public meeting was called and the remaining townsfolk asked to leave due to “health concerns.” Most were unconvinced, as the actual problems the town faced were not clearly explained. As the sergeant promised that no one would be arrested if they ignored the order, most went about their business, limiting water usage and getting on with life. The next day residents were allowed to return for two hours to clean out the fridge. Many stayed. During the lockdown the town was kept alive by the firefighting crews, Russell Skiller and his family at the Shell Service Station, along with the crew at the Centennial Hotel. The power was restored on Friday evening and the rest of the townsfolk returned on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, visited Helensburgh and shook Sam Blackwell’s hand for saving the house next door.