‘All those priceless memories are lost’

April 06, 2018

The Austins' family car was destroyed in the blaze.

DESPITE their bravery, Fiona and Diesel don’t want the focus on them.

To them, the true heroes were the CFA volunteers who showed up almost immediately after Fiona raised the alarm.

“It was incredible, the chief lives just down the road, so he came right away, followed by eight vehicles,” she said.

“By the time they arrived, the house was completely engulfed in flames. It was structurally unsound, so they couldn’t fight it from the inside.”

But the volunteer firefighters weren’t about to give up.

Pumping water from the swimming pool and a nearby channel, they battled the flames for the next hour.

And looked after Fiona, Diesel and Macey every step of the way.

“It was fully ablaze and yet even then one volunteer asked ‘is there anything you need us to get from the house?’ I said no – no possessions are worth someone risking their life,” she said.

“My son was only wearing a pair of shorts and he was freezing cold, so they quickly got him a blanket and a teddy.

“They gave us drinks, anything we needed. They even made sure there was a bowl of water for the dog.”

As Fiona vividly described the inferno, her husband Michael cradled his head in one hand.

He was three hours away in Wodonga when she called him with the heart-breaking news.

“We own a pub up there, so I was staying there overnight,” he said.

“Of course, Fiona was beside herself when she called me. I immediately jumped in the car and raced over.”

When he called Fiona again on his way down to check how she was going, he didn’t get an answer.

Forty calls later and still all he had was her voicemail.

Her phone had died right after she called him. But he feared it was something far worse.

“A three-hour drive and not a single response. It was the most–” Michael breaks off, lost for words.

By the time he got home all that was left of the house were charred remains, smoke spilling from the scattered ‘hotspots’ the fireys were still fighting.

Michael still believes the most important thing, the only thing, is Fiona and Diesel got out — but the rest still hurts, and will hurt for a long time.

“The photos are gone, all those priceless memories are lost,” he said.

“Our car wasn’t insured, so it’s completely lost and going through all our possessions to report them for insurance, well you don’t realise all that’s in your house until you have to remember everything you’ve lost. It’s a heart-breaking process.

“But we’re not ones to ask for help. We want to give, not take.”

Still, the family has been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received, with Campaspe Shire offering accommodation, the Salvation Army reaching out with financial support and the CFA constantly checking in.

“Every person involved has brought so much light to our darkest hours,” Michael said.

While there are suspicions the meter box or an appliance in the laundry room could have sparked the fire, investigations are ongoing.

But Michael won’t rest until they have answers.

“I need to know. I could have lost my family. And we need to learn from this and mitigate any future risk,” he said.

But if there’s one lesson, one message the Austin family want to drive home through bravely sharing their story, it’s the urgent need for people to check their smoke detectors.

“Climb on a chair, climb on a ladder – do whatever you have to but just check the bloody thing.

“We’ve heard of people who pull out the battery because the noise irritates them. But please, just change the batteries.

“We were due to change ours and thankfully it worked – my wife and baby are alive because it worked.”

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