The gutted remains of one of the Wategos Beach homes.
The gutted remains of one of the Wategos Beach homes.

Terrifying tale of inferno

THE fire that ravaged two homes at Byron Bay’s Wategos Beach on Sunday evening made a tremendous roaring noise ‘like a diesel locomotive coming down the hill’, an eyewitness said.

Neighbour Ken Thurlow, who made one of the first triple-0 calls, said the ferocity of the blaze was ‘unbelievable’.

“I have never seen anything burn so quickly,” he said.

No one was hurt in the inferno, but it destroyed the two luxury properties, whose combined value was more than $10 million.

Both houses in the prestige beachside amphitheatre are owned by out-of-towners and were empty at the time.

Number 28 Brownell Drive, where the fire started, was bought in 2008 by Dudley Quinlivan and his wife Jo for $2.9 million.

The family had used it as a beach home, but had begun holiday letting it recently. A honeymooning couple had vacated the property mid-afternoon on Sunday, according to the local letting agent.

Mr Quinlivan is a prominent Gold Coast property developer and marketer.

The house was designed by Wategos-based architect Christine Vadasz and built in the early 1990s for the Priddle family.

“It was a beautiful property and the original owner put a lot of love and care into it,” Ms Vadasz said.

The house was mainly Gyprock with an iron roof, but had extensive Western red cedar cladding and a Cyprus pine floor.

The first Ms Vadasz knew of the fire was a smell like burning plastic or rubber. There had been a huge explosion when the gas tanks blew.

The more northerly house, No. 26, was sold for $7.5 million in 2008 to a proprietary company owned by Terence Agnew, of Sydney.

It was due to be redeveloped, a local tradesman said.

Like most of the houses at Wategos, it was used as a holiday rental and was also vacant at the time.

A third house at No. 24, the home of Joe Hoffmann and his wife, suffered minor smoke and scorch damage, but was saved by the actions of fire brigades from Byron Bay, Brunswick Heads, Bangalow and Mullumbimby and the Rural Fire Service, who were called in to provide extra water.

Mr Thurlow said he believed the fire had started in the kitchen of No. 28, which had a central atrium that had ‘acted like a chimney’.

“By the time the firies got here it was well alight and there was nothing they could do,” he said.

But the heat from the first blaze had been forced on to its northbound neighbour by a ‘good southerly wind’ that acted ‘like a blowtorch’ to set it alight and destroy it.

Mr Thurlow said the flames had soared 20 metres in the air and pointed to plants on his property that were covered with embers.

“With every bit of wind a new little fire broke out. That’s why the firies evacuated us,” he said.

Fire officers fought the two blazes for five hours, but remained on the scene until well into yesterday.

The properties were cordoned off as a crime scene and the cause of the fire is being investigated by police and a fire specialist from Sydney.

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