'It was everything we had'
THE worst 30 minutes of Leanne Hamilton's life happened between 9.30pm and 10pm on August 30 this year.
And the relief when, after half an hour of desperate calls to unanswered phones, she heard her daughter's voice and realised she was not in the family home, which was at that moment burning to the ground 270km away at Wilsons Creek, was just as unparalleled.
“As soon as I heard her voice I couldn't talk, I couldn't say anything - so then she started panicking because she didn't know what was wrong with me,” Ms Hamilton said, standing by the charred remains of the building she called home for four years.
On Saturday night, the community will rally to help Ms Hamilton and her family with a benefit at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall.
Ms Hamilton and her partner, Johnny, were visiting friends on the Sunshine Coast with their three dogs when what firefighters believe was an electrical fault in the wall sparked a blaze near the water heater in the centre of the old rented weatherboard house. Two of her children, Kurt, 17, and Kahlia, 16, were both staying with friends, although there had been talk of Kahlia and her mates, who were reeling from the death that day of schoolmate Jai Morcom, returning to the house that night.
A neighbour had the closest call with the fire. Believing the teens were home and trapped in the burning house, he tried, and fortunately failed, to kick the back door in so he could rescue them. He later told Ms Hamilton he could see black smoke through the windows, swirling through the centre of the house. Had he succeeded, Ms Hamilton said the sudden rush of fresh air could have caused the fire to flare and badly injure him.
“It's just lucky no one was hurt,” Ms Hamilton said. “I just think how lucky that we weren't there. We could have all been asleep in there.”
However, luck is a relative thing. No one was hurt and the giant flames failed to start a fresh bushfire - despite the bush being dry and fires already burning in the surrounding hills - but Ms Hamilton's family lost everything.
“It's still weird looking at it and thinking that used to be everything we had,” Ms Hamilton said.
More than five weeks on, the smell of ash and charcoal still hangs over the ruins of the building, and Ms Hamilton and her family have begun the long, slow task of putting their lives back together.
For the time being, Ms Hamilton and the kids were staying in a caravan, loaned to them by her landlord, near the house while they looked for a new place to live.
The generosity of friends and strangers alike is proving to be another blessing. Plenty of people have come forward with offers of clothes and other essentials, and friend Deidi Devine has high hopes of raising cash for the family and collecting more goods on Saturday night.
Ms Devine said Saturday's benefit, which starts at 7pm, would include some spectacular indigenous food, such as a kangaroo stew, live music and raffles of ACE courses. The courses cover things such as cooking and how to dye fabrics using plants.How to help
• Go to Saturday's benefit: It will be held at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall, Station Street, from 7pm. Entry is by donation. Buy a raffle ticket while you are there. If you would like to help organise the benefit or contribute to it, call Deidi Devine on 6684 0095.
• Help the Hamiltons find a new home: Ms Hamilton said she would prefer a two or three-bedroom home in the Mullumbimby/Ocean Shores area, because that is where she works and where her children go to school. However, she is not overly fussy. Her main requirements are that it be a long-term rental and that the family be able to keep their three dogs - a Staffordshire terrier, a Maltese terrier and staffy/Maltese cross. If you can help, call Ms Hamilton on 6684 0313.
• Donate: Benefit organiser, Deidi Devine, has asked Northern Rivers businesses to donate vouchers the family can use over the next few months directly to Ms Hamilton.