Art in the ashes

Mary Shields, Myrtle Creek
Photo: Mary Shields

We moved here from Casino on the 1st of April 2017. We came out here to find a bit of land and some quieter living. We’re on nine-and-a-half acres; not huge, and not much you can do with it if you want to make money off it, but we thought it was really pleasant. The house wasn’t amazing; it looked like it’d been cobbled together, built with things that people found, but we got used to it. We were starting to do some renovating to our taste – new front deck, new back deck – painting throughout. But that didn’t get finished…


I was at work the morning of the fire. Like I did for every morning up to that, I checked the fire map on the website. The fire had started up at Drake and Tabulam, came through and we were watching that. This particular morning, I got up and there was a little tiny spot on the map at Busbys Flat. 

I thought, I’ll go to work, someone will take care of that – it’s way over there. 

So, I went to work. Then during the day, we were watching the fire on the map and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I thought, It’s not looking that good. Then all of a sudden, probably about afternoon teatime, there was this thing that came straight out to the east on the map, like a tiny little arm.

I said to the guys at work, ‘That’s my house right at the end of the arm.’ I knew where it was on the map. I said, ‘That’s my house.’ Then I rang up home.

Danny, my husband, answered. He sounded a little puffed. I said, ‘What’s going on out there?’ 

He said, ‘Don’t ask.’ I asked if he was alright. He said, ‘Not really, don’t bother coming home.’ So immediately I got in the car and headed home.

I knew there was trouble along Summerland Way, so I decided to come through Ellangowan Road, which is the other way back here. They pulled me up at the corner of Ellangowan Road and Avenue Road, which is about ten k’s from here. They said, ‘Well, we can’t really stop you, but we don’t recommend you go through.’

So I didn’t.

At that point no one had seen Danny. I said, ‘Has anyone seen Danny?’ No one had seen him. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll just wait longer.’ 

Eventually he came out after he rounded up some of the neighbours.

He’d tried to catch some of the flames around the house. But there was nothing in the dam to water with and he said it wasn’t just leaves and sticks coming at him; there were branches, alight. There’d be a fire at one end of the house and then there’d be another one, then there’d be another one.

I asked if he was alright. He said, ‘Not really, don’t bother coming home’

So he drove through the front. Because that was safe. Then he thought, I don’t know about Ray, I don’t know about anybody. So he came back. 

Shanni, across the road, who works at the hospital, was asleep because she was a shift worker. She got woken up by the smoke and came out. 

Danny said, ‘You better get some stuff and leave.’

They had quite a few animals – ducks, geese, and dogs. I don’t know what she ended up packing in the car. 

Then there was old Ray next door. Danny couldn’t raise him on the phone. Robert, across the road, he went up to get Ray, round up some dogs and get him and a couple of vehicles to come up, out the driveway. 

Fran behind us was heading home from work. She rang up Danny and said, ‘Where is everybody?’ He said, ‘Don’t come home.’ She said, ‘I’m nearly home.’ So she went up to her house and started clearing out some of her stuff and Robbie was helping to put some things in a car and round up the dogs. 

Anyway, Fran, Ray, the neighbours, and Danny, they all ended up being in a convoy going way up through to Ellangowan Road to a friend of ours where I ended up staying that afternoon.

The next day we started at Ellangowan, at our friends’, and I said to Danny, ‘We have to go back there.’ I was really scared of looters. Even though the place was still glowing red, I thought, I need to keep an eye on the place. Because you hear about those things happening. But first of all, we went to the shops, bought some clothes and I went to work that morning to just say I’m alright. That’s when my workmates presented me with this camera, which was really nice, because they knew I was interested in photography. And they knew the house was gone, so I guess they figured the camera was gone.

As soon as Danny had decided it wasn’t safe to stay any more, he’d rushed inside the house even though it was going to burn and picked up the computer box and his laptop, under the arms, and left. Afterwards, I said to him, ‘Didn’t happen to pick up my camera did you?’ I knew it was on the dining room table. He said, ‘I didn’t have enough hands, sorry!’

But our computer had our life on it, it’s got everything on it. So I guess that if you want got choose something, it’s gonna be that, really – the computer. And Danny’s business and everything’s on his computer so that was his arms full.

Anyway, we got out here Wednesday afternoon, about lunch. We drove through this road. There were trees down, wires down, and we had to drive through paddocks to get here. And then here we were, but I had a camera then, so I could take photos. 

Mary's burnt camera.
Cooked coins.
Surviving mug. Photos: Mary Shields

They knew the house was gone, so I guess they figured the camera was gone

It was amazing really, how the heat had affected things. Like the vehicles that burned and glass melting, metal melting, aluminium melting. The shipping containers had furniture and a life’s collection of books that hadn’t gone to the house yet (not that that would have mattered). When you opened them it’s absolutely empty, lucky to be a bit of ash. Anything that might have had a little bit of steel on it like a chair or something had the steel there, but nothing else. Just nothing.

Even the timber flooring the containers had, there was nothing there – just the beams that hold up the timber. I had some ceramics in there, some sets of coffee cups, and the glaze was melting on those. That means that it was at least seven-hundred degrees for glaze to melt.

There was some glass that was very badly melted. I guess it depends on the quality of the glass as well.

There was a dishwasher, still with crockery and cutlery. And the washing machine – Danny’s work clothes were in there, still in there. After the fire, they were pretty dry! When he put his hand in and touched them, they just turned to talcum powder.

Burnt washing machine.
Outdoor chairs.
Surviving cups in dishwasher. Photos: Mary Shields

We got so much help. So much help. Not only from the government, but from a lot of people. 

Nearly everything in this room has been given to me. This table and chairs are from a business in Casino; they didn’t want them anymore in their office. And that’s my mum’s old cabinet. That was my mum’s chair and a friend of ours gave us the black lounge suite. The rest of the things given to us are in a replacement storage container. Quilts. Everyone gives us quilts. They’re quite useful, really.

People would give me cash. A woman pulled us up in the shopping centre one day. Danny and I had rushed in to get a roast chook for dinner. She pulled us up, said, ‘Oh, oh, oh, great. Let me buy you groceries.’ I said, ‘No, we’ve only come in for a chook.’ And she said, ‘No, no I insist.’ So she dragged us to the checkout and paid for the roast chook. She said I’d rather do that than do the donation directly. Stuff like that has just been amazing.


Not long after, just into the New Year, covid sprang its ugly head up. I was in Sydney when that first occurred. There was a lovely cruise ship in the harbor, and I took photos of it; the ferry and all. And that was the ship. I didn’t know it at the time, I got home and said, ‘That’s the ship!’ 

But covid threw us a bit in terms of the rebuild – getting out and about looking, shopping. 

And then, of course, then the rain. It’s rained nearly a year, which has just held up the rebuild. 

We’ve had the house frame sitting in the yard for over a year-and-a-half at least. Haven’t been able to get near it. It’s a huge job. And we need help, in terms of muscle. I can’t do it. And Danny can’t lift things too much anymore. 

It’s a huge project, so we’re not very far along.

Before Coronavirus got quite bad, we could have just ordered a builder, say, ‘Look, build this little brick house.’ And we’d be done with it. But we didn’t really want one. But in hindsight, maybe we just could have and gone on with our life because that would be done.

Our living quarters is 40-foot container, which has been fitted out with a bathroom-slash-laundry and it’s got our fridge and freezer inside and a sleeping area. We have put together two 20-foot containers, which have been made into a studio/living area. It’s been a complete relief to have the studio. If we were stuck in there on the horrible dirt floor inside our shed (which survived the fire), I’d be insane. 

And the studio is a darkroom too, which I’ve wanted for 40 years. I can’t completely darken this off, but it’s good enough. They’re all black curtains. I can shut them all and make photos.

Land Rover, one of three vehicles that were destroyed on Danny and Mary’s property, along with two boats, and two shipping containers full of furniture and books. Photo: Mary Shields