ONLY the determination of firefighters stood between the Campvale fire and Salt Ash properties on Thursday. In the end, it was the sweat and tears of the crews manning the hoses that stood tall in the suburb’s second pre-summer bushfire this year.
One shipping container was the only property lost by Thursday evening as the blaze swept from Campvale, near Grahamstown Dam, through to Paul's Corner at Salt Ash.
Crews were forced to abandon the steel structure to the fire about 6pm, with the towering blaze only metres from a two-storey house.
No-one was home as the fire ripped through cars scattered in the backyard, eventually wheeling away from firefighters waiting beneath a bare Hills Hoist to defend the two-storey brick house under the cloud of smoke rising from the backyard.
Metres away, stacks of gas bottles nestled in heavy undergrowth offered firefighters no clues as to whether they were full or empty as a sprinkler whipped water over their hard metal shells.
Cars across the backyard were left steaming and skeletal.
The Port Stephens fire was one of two Emergency level fires in the Hunter, the other sparking on Hospital Road at Weston.
It burned 78 hectares, moving south-east past Kurri Kurri hospital towards Leggetts Drive and Pelaw Main.
Both Weston and Port Stephens residents were told it may not be safe to return home, or to shelter in place.
The message was simple: it was too late to leave.
As darkness fell, so did the danger on both fire grounds.
The blazes that spent the afternoon at Emergency, the highest alert level, fell to the Watch and Act rating.
“Although the immediate threat to homes in the area has lowered, firefighters from the NSW RFS and Fire & Rescue NSW, along with aircraft, are continuing work to slow the spread of the fire,” firefighters said of the Weston blaze at 7pm.
The Campvale fire, its cause yet to be determined late yesterday, began south of Richardson Road before crossing Medowie Road under strong winds.
By 8pm it had scorched 590 hectares and threatened homes at Salt Ash Avenue, Hideaway Drive, Shady Avenue, Nelson Bay Road, Lemon Tree Passage Road, Janet Parade and Marsh Road before crews determined there was no direct threat.
“Overnight, crews will continue work to build containment lines, which may include backburning operations, in an effort to control the fire,” NSW RFS said in a statement.
“Easing conditions and hard work by firefighters had slowed the spread of the fire.”
An evacuation centre was set up at Irrawang High School at Raymond Terrace as Medowie Road, Richardson Road and Lemon Tree Passage Road shut.
Nelson Bay Road was re-opening late last night.
Earlier, firefighters spent their sweat and effort only to keep the fire at bay.
Extinguishing it was not a viable option until darkness fell despite the large air tankers offering aerial support to dampen the blaze’s march.
About 6pm, NSW Rural Fire Service’s Inspector Rolph Poole said crews had never expected to contain the fire in horrid conditions that were not expected to abate until at least late into the evening.
Crews were called in from Sydney to help mitigate the damage.
“Really it’s been about setting up for property protection,” he said near where flames pushed towards Salt Ash Avenue.
“We can’t contain the fire under the wind conditions.”
As conditions eased, Inspector Poole said firefighters would attempt to attack the blaze more directly.
Spot fires continued to keep crews on the move late yesterday, with a heavy contingent mobbed around the fuel reserves at Paul’s Corner.
Fires popped up in the area quickly, with the area transforming from “no smoke to flames” in minutes.
Fire tore into the Salt Ash Avenue block where the container was lost at about 6pm.
Starting small, the flames were quickly pouring out acrid black smoke and dwarfing the house they threatened.
Sweeping over shipping containers and wrecked cars, the fire spat out loud bangs as the flames roiled in the backyard.
Out front, a sprinkler whipped water over more gas bottles.
Across the street, neighbour James Worsfold and about a dozen friends and family said it went “from a bit of smoke to just flames” in minutes after the wind began swirling the blaze toward their property earlier in the day.
Fire crews lined the ditches outside the property as Mr Worsfold and his family, greased in ash, took a moment’s respite among their cars draped with lawn sprinklers.
Fire crews remained camped on their street in the intervening lull before their neighbour’s land came under threat.
“We had a few spot fires start out the front here and we just had to go and get a few buckets,” Mr Worsfold said.
“We haven’t stopped.”
Mr Worsfold said goats, cats, dogs and cockatoos on the property were at the front of their minds fighting the blaze.
Horses had already been evacuated to land near Oakvale Farm to shield them from the brunt of the smoke.
“We’ve has evacuation warnings here before but never actually had them (bushfires) here,” he said.
“We’ve lost animals before ... it turned that quick, it went from no smoke to just flames.”
“It could have been a lot worse,” he said.
From that landmark, Salt Ash resident Kevin Wedlock can usually see his Richardson Road property.
By 5pm on Thursday the only break in the white haze between his property and the IGA, where Mr Wedlock stood among a handful of people and dogs hiding from the smoke, were the occasional flashing orange tongues of flame.
“We don’t even know if we have a house to go back to,” Mr Wedlock said. “It’s horrible.”
Mr Wedlock said it was the first fire he had encountered since moving to the area in 2002. “It’s the price you pay for living in a rural area, unfortunately,” he said.
Paul’s Corner Foodworks manager Steven Nicholson, who opened the doors to his blacked-out store by hand for residents, said the fire was unprecedented for him.
“I’ve never seen it burn up this way in nine and a half years,” Mr Nicholson said.
Another resident said that part of Salt Ash last faced a serious bushfire in the 1990s.
Beyond the blaze, cars crammed the edge of the Williamtown RAAF base where Nelson Bay Road and Medowie Road met.
Both roads shut, the roundabout resembled a gleaming car park as cars crowded front lawns and median strips.
Drivers sat on bonnets and cracked beers as school uniforms flitted between dormant vehicles, parents watching the plumes grow.
Smoke erased the thin blue of the sky over Port Stephens from the Stockton bridge, coupling with a dusty hue blown in from western NSW to bleed out all colour.
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