Couple Lost Dream Home To Bushfires Days After Buying It
A week before catastrophic fires destroyed their dream home, Annameka Gillespie and Justin Schneider were popping champagne on the deck to celebrate buying it.
The couple had dreamt of buying their first home in country NSW for three years, and they'd spent six months negotiating the sale.
Gillespie was painting the Conjola Park house when her partner called and asked if she'd seen the emergency alert from the Rural Fire Services for a nearby suburb.
Schneider headed back to the house after buying groceries for a three-course New Year's Eve dinner he had planned as a surprise.
"I didn’t panic, we have been evacuated before and everything was fine. There were blue skies above me, and the fire didn’t look like it was heading our way,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie climbed onto the roof and filled the gutters with water, hosing the yard until there was no water left.
Through the back fence, her new neighbour Karen introduced herself and offered a hand. Gillespie thanked her and told her not to worry, her partner was already on his way.
Thirty minutes later Schneider called to say the roads had been closed and he couldn't get through.
"He was devastated. He told me he felt sick to his stomach but I reassured him the dog and I were fine," Gillespie told 10 daily.
With no car on hand, Gillespie put the dog on a leash and walked through the street looking for help.
I locked the windows, shut all the bedroom doors. I said goodbye to our house, what had been our dream, our plan, our goal for years. I hoped I’d see it again.
As spot fires broke out around her, she said that an RFS volunteer pulled up in a van and screamed at her to find a neighbour with a car and "get out!".
“The heat was incredible. The wind was dropping ash everywhere, my eyes were burning and streaming with water,” Gillespie said.
Up the road, Gillespie said she spotted a woman, who offered her a cold glass of water from the fridge and a ride to safety.
Before driving onto the highway, the women fought to protect another neighbour's home, battling a spot fire in a veggie garden.
The fire was howling. No one tells you fire howls, the sounds is terrifying.
“I've never seen anything like it in my life. It looked like midnight. Both sides of the street had houses raging in an inferno, flaming skeletons of the houses they once were and collapsing in on each other,” she said
When they finally got onto the road, she said she saw flaming debris as it whipped around the car.
“My neighbour Anne kept saying f*ck and I thought ‘my sentiments exactly’. Her husband Lloyd said ‘welcome to the neighbourhood’,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie later learnt that Lloyd was joking around to hide the fact that the car tyres had caught fire and he didn't want them to worry.
For almost an hour, they waited for the road to open in the smouldering heat, flames surrounding them on either side of the highway.
After being separated for five hours, Gillespie and Schneider were finally reunited at the pub, where they found people chatting and drinking, unaware of the chaos taking place nearby.
The next day, while they were camping out in their car, the couple said they learnt that their dream house had been destroyed.
"We didn’t know the fate of our house until the following day when we had an internet connection and saw an ABC reporter metres from our driveway," Gillespie said.
After spending two days walled up in their car, the couple returned to Conjola Park.
When they arrived, they were devastated to find nothing left of their home except a pile of rubble.
The alloy of a parked car had melted into the ground and even the street signs were singed.
The couple said that while they lost everything inside, they're astounded at the generosity of their new neighbours who saved Gillespie's life and drove her to safety.
Despite losing her own home, their neighbour Karen had been so worried about Gillespie that she filed a missing person's report.
"After surviving the fire, having driven out of her front yard through the flames on the back of a dirt bike and losing a shoe, Karen's biggest concern was that I didn’t make it out," Gillespie said.
"Everyone was looking out for each other and at times of crisis I wouldn’t have picked anyone else to be with."
Eden Gillespie is a 10 daily journalist, Annameka Gillespie is her sister.
Contact Eden at email@example.com