Stories from the Fires


Spirited horse helps farmer survive worst

Darren Gray, Traralgon
February 9, 2009

Wayne Taylor

Anthony Sexton with his horse, which is burnt, stands before the smouldering ruins of his home at Koornalla near Churchill, in South Gippsland. Photo: Wayne Taylor

ANTHONY Sexton walked off his property at 5.30pm on Saturday leading a horse with one hand, nursing a beer in the other and wearing his work clothes from the Yallourn W power station. Behind him lay the small hobby farm he had called home for 30 years — surrounded by flames.

Twenty-four hours later the horse he led off the property and the smelly clothes he still wears represent a large portion of his remaining worldly belongings. A singed four-wheel-drive, old Massey Ferguson tractor, an old car, and a collection of charred cigarette lighters salvaged from the wreckage of his house probably round out the list.

The 130-year-old farmhouse he was slowly bringing back to its former glory had been flattened by the Gippsland blaze, and he estimates 97 per cent of his farm was burnt out.

“I had a hell of a time,” he said late yesterday afternoon, standing next to his smouldering house.

“We were sitting there and we were watching the fire. And it was up here in the mountains. We were watching the fire front go through and we thought we were safe,” he said. “And then all of a sudden the cool change came in, the smoke came in, the sun went and my denial turned into panic, and I thought, ‘Shit. We’re in trouble.’ ”

After sending his brother to find safety on his prize 1993 Heritage Soft Tail Classic Harley-Davidson, Mr Sexton grabbed his horse, Jeune Mark, the offspring of 1995 Melbourne Cup winner Jeune, a cold beer from the fridge and walked out the gate. They started trotting, but just a few hundred metres from home they were confronted by flames.

“As we got up around the corner the flames just went absolutely sick, so I thought we’d turn around and try and race back. But the fire came up behind us, it came down from the hill, and we were just bloody engulfed, and I just thought to myself, ‘That’s it. This is where I’m going to die,’ ” he said.

But then something remarkable happened, perhaps by accident, perhaps not. Jeune Mark pushed him over a guard rail, and after a short wrestle with the horse he stumbled and raced down to the Traralgon Creek, on his own, and lay in it.

“I was screwed. I was covered in flames,” he said. But after lying there for two or more hours, and after noticing that the flames had past, Mr Sexton emerged from the water and followed the creek towards home.

About 10pm he arrived there to a scene of devastation. “Everything was gone. Everything was flattened. The land was flattened. All my fences are gone, my fern gully is gone, everything’s gone. My Holden Statesman I wanted to do up that’s sitting in the shed is gone,” he said.

Jeune Mark, however, was standing in the paddock, the worse for wear, with burns around his eyes and nose, but still alive. “I was over the moon (when I saw him). Because I honestly thought that he was going to be dead, considering the flames that he had to run through,” he said.

Late yesterday fire still gripped an old blackwood tree at the rear of his house, the concrete stumps of the house were as brittle as cardboard and some of his fence posts and paddocks were still smoking.

Mr Sexton’s house, at Koornalla in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges, is one of scores of houses thought to have been flattened by the Gippsland blaze. This blaze has claimed at least nine lives.

From a helicopter high above the devastated hills, paddocks and hamlets south of Traralgon yesterday, The Age counted 43 destroyed buildings that appeared to have been houses. Some properties had singed swimming pools a few metres from houses — burnt-out cars and melted water tanks next to twisted remains.

In addition to houses and sheds, numerous haystacks worth thousands of dollars were still burning and dead cattle lay twisted and heaped in paddocks. A eucalypt plantation occupying the ridge near Traralgon and hillsides of the ranges has been severely burnt.

On some properties sheds have been destroyed, but houses surrounded by trees apparently survived intact.

Incident controller Stephen Walls, of the Country Fire Authority, said the fire had been ferocious but had been stopped by firefighters before it reached the Loy Yang Power Station.

“During the run of the fire last night, it would have been some of the most ferocious fire ever seen in Australia and probably the world,” he said.

“It was uncontrollable from the time it started. And (it) took off, despite what normally would have been an effective attack from local CFA and DSE units. Due to the strong winds and the high temperatures etc, the fire was completely uncontrollable. And as a result that’s when it started spotting.”

While some of the fire had not been controlled yesterday, Mr Walls said the threat had been downgraded and it was much less of a concern than it was on Saturday. Some of the fire was burning in steep and inaccessible country, he said.


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