Didn’t want for nothing

Phil McKenzie, Bora Ridge
Phil McKenzie and Patch outside Phil and Gloria’s new home. Photo Jodie Harris

We’d had the house for 34 years. I was working away on the Hayman Islands, and my wife Gloria called and said this house was for sale. I knew what it was like because I’d been in it – small house, about twelve-by-twelve metres, three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom off the end – so I said, ‘Go and buy it.’ I used to come home every six weeks and stay home for a fortnight and go back to work while Gloria brought up the kids here. Then I said, ‘Nah, you can’t have a family and work away.’  So I come back, and we lived here.


On the day the house burnt we’d went and helped me son’s mate change a tire. I got a phone call from the house about the fire. The grandson said, ‘It’s right Pop, there’s two fire trucks here.’

The house was still standing when I got back. Ten minutes later the roof was collapsing. Then the house fell. The embers were jumping over into the shed next door. Right at the corner of my place there was a gas bottle, three metres long, that the neighbour used to feed the tea tree still. I said to the bloke, ‘Why don’t you put any water on the shed? If it blows up me and you aren’t going to hear about it.’ And with that they went to the tree over the road and two trucks passed and watched the house burn.

We were trying to get to the other side of the house to protect whatever we had, but when the shed blew up, 44-gallon drums of tea tree oil were exploding and one come ten to fifteen feet from myself. 

Me son yelled, ‘Watch out Dad!’ and the drum near hit me. 

The police stopped us from protecting our sheds. I had a caravan in the shed and they tried to arrest four people. Myself, me son, and two of his friends. 

I had a row of conifer trees, they were 20 foot high, but the fires it just burnt that. All my ground, it’d be an acre to two acres, it just burnt. The grass was that dead the fire just run across the grass, and we couldn’t stop it. But no one had any hose to help us to fight the fire. Four boys stood up over the road, looking at the fire. They never done nothing. And we had a swimming pool next to the house – never used it. Never put any water out on the house. We would have appreciated if they had have tried, but they just let it burn. And one of the fire blokes said, ‘We’re here to save people, not property,’ and with that the police come and told us all to get out ’cause it was a natural disaster and wouldn’t let anyone here.

The house was still standing when I got back. Ten minutes later the roof was collapsing. Then the house fell.

Photo contributed by Phil McKenzie

I had 20 head of cattle. I think I had to shoot nine that got burnt in the fire. The government come out and had to see that I shot them humanely and buried them properly. The calves had their udders burnt. Their toenails were cooked and falling off. The lady from the DPI come here and inspected them and told me what ones to shoot and I shot ’em and they buried ’em for us. 

After shooting the nine, I ended up with six, and the rest I found burnt to death. Stiff and dead. Calves, they laid in the dam for two days until this vet came. Bruno – mate, give him praise – he come to any farm that called him and give needles for cows and horses for nothing. He went around farms, just treated animals, charged nothing because he was a compassionate vet. He was a great bloke, a young fella. Helped out with the animals on everyone’s property.

My granddaughter, she was six years old, she lost all her dolls. ABC talked to her. She said, ‘I lost all my dolls, all me teddy bears and toys.’ And we get a phone call from the Red Cross one day saying that there’s a box, a cardboard box addressed to us. And what had happened when the story with the ABC went on TV, a lady from the other side of Armidale sent a box of teddy bears for her.

We had people turn up just after the fires, too. Bringing cartons of water, food. A bloke from down the pulled up one day and give me a hundred dollars. I said, ‘I don’t want it, I’m right.’ He said, ‘No, take it! I’ll only give it to you somehow, put it in your mailbox.’ And I didn’t know him from a bar of soap. 

Photo: Jodie Harris

When the house burnt I had just been diagnosed with cancer and was having treatment with the mask, the radiation, the chemo, and immuno every three weeks. When they cut the tumour out of me head, they said ‘You can go home.’ Well, Gloria said, ‘We haven’t got a home to go to.’ 

So Kerrie from the Red Cross and another lady in Brisbane and other people along the line started looking into it and so they put us into Our House (which is like a unit house, like McDonald’s house is for kids) for seven weeks.  

After that we didn’t know about the help available. Kerrie and Tracy from Bushfire Recovery were organising things. They told us what to do. They took us every week to someone different. We couldn’t get into a house because we had no rental history, because we hadn’t rented for 34 years. Gloria said, ‘I’ve got money saved up. I’ve got one year’s rent.’ Still wouldn’t help out. Then one lady in Evans Head said, ‘Yes you can move in Monday.’ Then she called us Sunday night and said, ‘Nup, you can’t move in now.’ We’d went and bought beds, cupboards, washing machines, and then she said we couldn’t. So we stayed in the caravan again. 

Kerry from the Red Cross and Tracy from Bushfire Recovery, they said ‘You’re getting a pod.’ And I said, ‘Nope, we’ll live in the caravan.’ But they kept insisting because I had cancer and tumours and was crook and Gloria was crook. We were the first ones on the North Coast to get a pod. 

The pod was a 20-foot container. Four bunks, a kitchen, a fridge, a washing machine, a toilet, a shower. They were small. They had a generator and a water tank on the side. They were good. You lived in something. You had a roof over your head. And it wasn’t a tent. They delivered it and put it up on blocks, we did nothing. And when they come to get it back two blokes come and did everything. I think they’ve got them in Lismore now (for the floods). But, as I say, we were really grateful.

Red Cross was wonderful. Every time they’d come they’d bring us food, or water and blankets and seats. Everything. Couldn’t go past what they’d done for us. 


Our new place is a donga, a site building. Three by twelve metres. Front verandah, three metres by twelve, back verandah, five metres by twelve. It was a two bedroom originally but before we modified it and now it’s a one bedroom with toilet shower, bathroom, kitchen. Everything’s in it. 

When we started building this house Council wouldn’t let me build because I wasn’t a builder. Then we had trouble with dual occupancy, and they said we needed to have adequate parking. 

The Red Cross helped us and then just friends and other people. But the Red Cross was there ninety-five percent of the time. You didn’t want for nothing. You didn’t ask for nothing. We didn’t want at all.  There’s always someone worse off. We’d think we’re not taking this or doing that cause someone else will need it. That’s what I said about the pod, I said, ‘We’ve got a caravan.’ After the fires we used to shower in a camp shower. Put it in the sun. Me and Gloria’d stand in the shed and have a shower. The kids had a shower. But, I said, ‘No, we’re right. We’re managing.’ It wasn’t, you know, the best best. But we had it. People had nothing, you know. Burnt out. No sheds. No caravans. The poor people.

Family’s helped us get through it too. The kids come down and see us, help us out. Phone up. I dunno. They always come back. The grandson come the other week, and I said, ‘What do you want mate?’ He said, ‘Just come to say hello.’ Just come to see how we are. That’s all it is. 

Our son helps us and the grandson helps when we do things around the place. Our daughter comes down. She helps. When I was in Our House she’d drive from Drake to Lismore, take me across the road, get me treatment, come back and go home. Do that every week. 

We battle… well, we’re not battling anymore. Just my health and my wife’s health, that’s the only thing that’s really holding us up. We like going away. Me wife can’t go too far now. We like going to Moree, the hot springs. We stay there for two to three weeks. Before I had to have me therapy I could only go for three weeks. But now I’m finished so far, until another month and they’ll tell me what’s happening. I’ve stopped me immuno and I’ve stopped the other new drug for the tumour. 

We’re battling. Well, we’re not, battling battling, you know. We’re getting there. We’ve still got a family. The family looks after us… and Gloria.

We’re getting there, we’ve still got family

Photo: Jodie Harris