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‘It was like Armageddon’: One year after the Peregian Beach blaze


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‘It was like Armageddon’: One year after the Peregian Beach blaze

When police busted through Andrew Michael’s home as a massive bushfire roared outside, the fiercely independent 94-year-old did not want to go.Key points:It took two days and more than 200 firefighters to control the infernoMiraculously, only one house was destroyed and another was partially damagedTwo teenagers have been charged with deliberately lighting the fire”[Police] said,…

‘It was like Armageddon’: One year after the Peregian Beach blaze

When police busted through Andrew Michael’s home as a massive bushfire roared outside, the fiercely independent 94-year-old did not want to go.

Key points:

  • It took two days and more than 200 firefighters to control the inferno
  • Miraculously, only one house was destroyed and another was partially damaged
  • Two teenagers have been charged with deliberately lighting the fire

“[Police] said, ‘You have to go’ and I said ‘I can’t go…’ but he said, ‘No, you have to go now because the house behind you is burning down,” Mr Michael recalled.

The blaze, which police allege was deliberately lit by two teenagers, was believed to have started around 4:30pm on Monday, September 9, 2019 at Peregian Springs on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Unrelenting 50 kph wind gusts fanned the inferno in a north-easterly direction toward the unsuspecting beachside community of Peregian Beach.

At that time of the afternoon, many people were oblivious as to what lay ahead as they went about their afternoon returning from work, school, the beach.

Within hours, the entire community was evacuated and more than 7,000 residents fled to loved ones or the evacuation centres with little more than what they could fit in a car.

It caught everyone off-guard including 94-year-old Mr Michael who believed he was not in danger because “the building is good”.

Older man with grey hair sits in an armchair smiling gently.

After evacuating, neighbours looked after Mr Michael at nearby Marcus Beach until he could return to his home.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan)

His neighbour Damian Meadows alerted police to his elderly friend amid the chaos and panic.

“A [9-metre] wall of fire on the road out here … a convoy of cars heading north and fire trucks everywhere,” he told the ABC at the time.

Senior Constable Mark Johnston was the first officer to arrive at Mr Michael’s home and captured the evacuation on his body cam.

Bushfire burning very close to homes at Peregian Springs, fanned by strong winds

Homes from Peregian Beach to Marcus Beach 4km away remained under heavy ember attack throughout the night.(Supplied: Daniel Mcardle)

With a walking stick in one hand and police beside him, Mr Michael was escorted down the stairs of his beloved Peregian Beach home with “millions” of sparks “raining” down.

He knew then it was serious.

So too did his daughter, Diana Michael, who was stopped at a road block while trying to reach to her father.

“When I saw the [police] footage and I recognised the unit and I saw my father and the police and the evacuation and all the flames and the ashes falling, that’s when I thought, ‘This is serious’ and it got quite emotional.

A crowd of residents in a street watch a bushfire raging behind Peregian Springs.

Residents were stunned at the situation unfolding in their community.(Supplied: Julie Bristow)

‘Sheer terror, raining embers’

Police drove through the streets rescuing residents and putting out spot fires with garden hoses.

“We were going door to door and just trying to rescue whoever we could. I ended up with a few people in the back of my car,” Senior Constable Darryl ‘Diesel’ Campbell said.

Bushfire encroaches on Sunshine Coast township of Peregian Beach

Emergency services worked throughout the night to stop the blaze from causing extensive property damage.(News Video)

“Honestly, sheer terror, just terror, it hit so fast and so hard and the noise with the heat it was just intense … it was raining embers.”

Senior Constable Campbell, whose vest still has burn marks from the embers, said it was like something from a movie.

Police block a road at Peregian Beach with smoke in the background.

“You could barely breathe, let alone see,” Senior Constable Campbell said at the time.(Supplied: Caitlin Neate)

Petrol station, aged care facility under threat

Noosa Fire Station Officer Rob Frey said emergency services worked together to protect the town with “firefighters, police officers doing everybody’s job”.

But as night fell, firefighters lost all aircraft support.

McDermott aviation aircraft tracks for one day's work on the Sunshine Coast.

Contractors McDermott aviation aircraft tracks for one day’s work on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.(Supplied: McDermott Aviation Group)

They intended to hold the fire where it was so the next day’s crew could knock it out completely when the water bombers would return.

That was no easy task. Two fire fronts merged and were barrelling towards their position.

“The petrol station was under threat but being gallantly defended”, as were the town’s main village centre, pub, surf club and aged care facility.

Authorities were unable to evacuate the facility’s 90 residents in time so they were moved into the foyer while outside, fire crews formed a three-deep, “human shield” defence around the building with 20 appliances activated as the blaze came within reach.

Bushfire approaching Arcare at Peregian Springs as seen through nursing home window.

The fire came dangerously close to the aged care facility at Peregian Springs.(Supplied)

It took two days for more than 200 firefighters to contain the blaze and before residents were allowed back home.

Two teenagers — a boy and girl now aged 15 and 16 respectively — have been committed to stand trial in the Children’s Court of Queensland on a date to be set.

They have been charged with one count each of endangering property by fire.

Burnt kombi van and yard at a house after a bushfire at Peregian Beach

The blaze resulted in minimal damage to homes and businesses.(Supplied: Wavell Bush)

Miraculously, only one home was destroyed and one other was partially damaged throughout the ordeal.

Mr Frey said the success of the operation rested on the professionalism and attitude of those battling the blaze.

Firefighters try to douse a bushfire at night near properties in a street at Peregian Beach.

There has been widespread praise for emergency services who battled the blaze.(Supplied: Wavell Bush)

But he said teams were “a bit dirty” that they were not able to save 90-year-old Pam Murphy’s house.

Ms Murphy had just eaten her dinner, oblivious to the approaching fireball, when she was ordered to evacuate.

Bushfire-damaged house at Peregian Beach with police tape in front.

Pam Murphy’s home, with its shingle roof, was the only home destroyed in the fire.(ABC News: Allyson Horn)

She was shocked.

“But then I thought, ‘It’s done — what can I do?’ Nothing,” Ms Murphy said.

“All my furniture and all the lovely things I had went up in smoke and I thought: ‘Well they’ve all gone, I can’t replace them, I’ll just have to have new things’.”

One of those new items is a house — built to the plan of her original home thanks to the undamaged architecture plans found in the bottom of a metal filing cabinet.

Woman with grey hair stands in front of an A-frame house under construction. She is smiling.

Ms Murphy should be in her newly built home in a month.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan)

Community spirit

A year on, the beachside town has found a silver lining — and friendships.

Mr Michael said it had brought the community closer and people were “more receptive to friendship”.

His daughter, Diana, who praised the neighbours who continue to check on her father, agreed.

Smoke billows from Peregian Beach.

The fires have brought the Peregian Beach community closer together.(Supplied: Caitlin Neate)

While residents praised the emergency services for saving their town, livelihoods, and property, emergency personnel insisted the gratitude went both ways.

“The rural firies are the real heroes in my eyes, they were there in the blink of an eye, they don’t get paid to do that, and they were the heroes,” Senior Constable Campbell said.

Meanwhile Noosa Fire Station Officer Rob Frey said having strangers offer his family a place to stay was one of the most heroic behaviours he witnessed that night.

“I just really loved the way everybody pulled together,” he said.

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