Forty years of memories gone - Canberra woman mourns loss of family property but praises the healing power of a small country town

Gemma Pritchard finds an antique sword she received for Christmas in the ruins of her family's Tumbarumba property, which was destroyed by fire on New Year's Eve.
Gemma Pritchard finds an antique sword she received for Christmas in the ruins of her family's Tumbarumba property, which was destroyed by fire on New Year's Eve.

Three things survived a New Year's Eve bushfire which otherwise destroyed the Tumbarumba property of the Pritchard family: an antique sword, a wood stove and a sign with the name of the farm, Bandywallop.

Heidi Pritchard, the manager of lifelong learning at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and her family have been retreating to their beloved property at the edge of the Snowys for 40 years.

"We lost what dad refers to as the heart of the family," Heidi said. It was a place for them to gather from different cities. To spend time together and just be.

Heidi and her sister Gemma and three friends escaped by "the skin of their teeth" when the fires hit the property, which is 18km from Tumbarumba, on the morning of New Year's Eve. Thankfully their parents Geoff and Joan and sister Laura were not at the farm.

"I've never woken up at 5.30 in the morning in my life and neither has my sister and we looked out the back and thought, 'this is not good'," Heidi said.

Gemma went up the ridge to get phone reception and check the Fires Near Me app. According to the app, the fire was still "two towns away, miles away".

"Had we listened to that app, we would have been dead," Heidi said.

Heidi Pritchard, back home in Canberra, fled the fire with her dogs Tully, Hugo and Muppet. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Heidi Pritchard, back home in Canberra, fled the fire with her dogs Tully, Hugo and Muppet. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Instead, their gut instinct kicked in and the five adults, with four dogs, fled into town. They later found out the fire arrived about 30 minutes after they left.

"We got into town and the wind was terrifying and there was stuff falling from the sky," Heidi said.

"The air was like a blanket over your face."

The sisters managed to get back to the property three days later and found the home was levelled. They managed to dig out a sword Heidi had given Gemma for Christmas. It was a small moment of triumph.

Fires were still breaking out on the farm. Heidi remembers throwing water at a stump and watching the ground "boil and shift and hiss".

Now back home in Canberra, Heidi can hardly remember how long she was in the town during the crisis. Four or five days. It was a blur.

But she and her family count themselves lucky. Their property was a holiday home. Their neighbours and friends in Tumbarumba had lost their homes and their livelihoods. Apple orchards blackened; a blueberry farm torched; farms stripped.

"We had homes to go to," Heidi said. "There are people in the valley who still haven't come out."

The smoking ruins of the Pritchard property at Tumbarumba.

The smoking ruins of the Pritchard property at Tumbarumba.

The Pritchard sisters say they will never forget how the town cared for them in the four or five days they were trapped there. No power. No food. No cash. No petrol.

The pub became the evacuation centre. Publicans Sue and Greg fed the evacuees. The Salvation Army brought food. The Pritchard sisters also helped serve food to the firies.

People would go to the pub to find their loved ones. Sometimes they'd call out and no one would answer.

Others there would say their home was gone.

"You could tell when someone had lost their place because of the hugs. There was a queue," Heidi said.

Sisters Gemma and Heidi Pritchard after the New Year's Eve bushfire destroyed their family's property at Tumbarumba.

Sisters Gemma and Heidi Pritchard after the New Year's Eve bushfire destroyed their family's property at Tumbarumba.

"The more people lost, the more they wanted to give, to help," Heidi said.

She remembers one long-time resident didn't want to leave her home. Her husband was a firefighter who had to return to the blaze.

"She said, 'I'll just get in the dam if it gets bad' and he said, 'If you're going in the dam, wear yellow so I can find you'. That kind of thing was going on all the time," Heidi said.

Then there was the "incredible" local policeman, Mike Jones, who would hold town meetings three times a day in the hall to update residents. He didn't sugarcoat anything. He was direct. A generator was brought in to work the petrol pumps and Mike would make sure everyone got what they needed.

Finally the police officer told the young, the old, anyone who couldn't fight the fires, to leave for Wagga.

"What a hero. We've decided Mike needs to be mayor," Heidi said.

"In situations like that, you need a firm hand. He told us exactly what was going on."

She wasn't sure yet if the family would rebuild.

"Geez, I hope so. Dad's 80 now. It's too soon to know. Right now we can't even get in," she said.

"But my sister and I aren't 80 and we're not kids anymore. Maybe it's time for us to step up."

What Heidi will remember most of those days when one decade ticked into the next was the fact everyone was looking out for everyone else.

"Nobody got left behind," she said.

This story Forty years of memories gone as Pritchards lose Tumbarumba home first appeared on The Canberra Times.