Phone calls got more and more desperate as fire surrounded house, killing trapped couple

ABOVE: Robert Lindsay and Gwen Hyde died in the Long Gully Rd fires in 2019. Photo: Contributed

Susanna Freymark

As the Long Gully Rd fire surrounded her home, Gwen Hyde made a final call to a friend. All entries are blocked by fire, the firies aren’t coming, everything outside is on fire, she said.

At the NSW Bushfires Coronial Inquiry this month, data and evidence was given on the 2019 fires including the one at Long Gully Rd where two people – Robert Lindsay, 77, and Gwen Hyde, 69, – were killed.

The Long Gully Rd fire was most likely started by lightning striking a tree in remote bushland at Sandy Hill, southwest of Drake on August 30, 2019.

Investigators said the fire from the lightning strike burned inside the trunk of a tree for days before smoke was spotted.

The fire burned 74,000ha including 45,000ha of private land.

The Long Gully Rd fire was reported to the RFS on September 5 by at least five Drake residents.

When Frasers Cutting, Tabulam and Drake RFS units attended the fire it had a 1–2km fire front and a flame height of 2m.

The next day on September 6, 2019, a number of flame retardants were dropped.

Reports from the helicopters said the fire was jumping, the inquiry was told.

Drake RFS doorknocked residents but not everyone was contacted.

Witnesses reported shock at the ferocity of the fire and the speed of its spread.

By September 10, the fire had reached the Bruxner Highway and destroyed eight houses and 22 outbuildings.

By September 16, it had reached properties in the Drake area.

On October 8, properties in Ewingar were burned.

On that day, the fire progressed through dense pine tree plantation towards Gwen’s 300ha property at Coongbar.

Gwen and Robert were at home.

At 5.16pm on October 8, spot fires were igniting ahead of the fire front.

By 6pm fire had engulfed the rustic log cabin, killing them both.

Gwen’s phone calls tell the story of the hours before the fire reached the house.

At 11.03am on that day, Gwen phoned a friend and said: “Bloody fires again.” She did not seem overly concerned at this point, the friend said.

At 3.21pm, Gwen phoned another friend and spoke about her plan to come to Casino the following day.

At 4.48pm, a friend phoned Gwen because he could see the black smoke above the property.

Gwen did not seem concerned about the fire; the friend told the inquiry.

At 4.52pm, the deputy incident controller at Glen Innes rang her, concerned about their safety as the fire had jumped the Clarence River.

By 5pm, Gwen had phoned many friends. She was worried. Fire was spotting in the orchard, she told them.

At 5.21pm Gwen called Ulmarra Fire Control Centre.

Fire was leaping across the roof, she told them.

No RFS crews were available and it was likely it would have been too late to attend the property.

That was when Gwen made that final call to a friend at 5.36pm.

At 5.47pm an RFS helicopter flew over Gwen’s property. He saw a woman come out from the veranda and wave to the helicopter.

The pilot dropped water on the fire and made an urgent radio call. He then went to refill the bucket and came back 10 minutes later at 5.57pm.

By that time, the fire had progressed and Gwen’s house was no longer visible through the smoke.

This would have been about the time Gwen and Robert died.

RFS crews arrived at 6.30pm while the house was still smouldering.

The corrugated roof of the house had collapsed.

RFS crews and police could not find Gwen and Robert and declared them as missing.

It wasn’t until October 10 when there was a complete forensic search that Gwen and Robert’s bodies were found together in the house, under the collapsed roof.

The coroner’s report said the fire conditions on the day they died were extreme.

Gwen’s property had only one way in or out and this could have contributed to their deaths.

From a fire-safe perspective, counsel assisting said the property was not well prepared for fire as it was cluttered with items close to the house.

The Long Gully Rd fire continued a path of destruction then merged with the western section of the Busby Flat fire on October 9.

This fire had a different cause and had started separately from the Long Gully Rd fire.

The Long Gully Rd fire was officially declared out on October 27, 2019.

The fire had burned 45 homes and destroyed or damaged 54 structures in the 53 days it burned.

The full day at the coronial inquiry can be viewed below.

https://youtu.be/hu9PYrM9uI8

Correction

A member of the Lindsay family has contacted us and let us know we spelt Lindsay incorrectly with an e. We have corrected the story and apologise to the family for the mistake.

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