After pocketing $430,000 in prize money following The Block auction over the weekend, NSW couple Andy and Deb Saunders’ biggest concern is about their home back in Wallabi Point, just over 20 kilometres south of Taree.
As their neighbourhood continues to face bushfire threats that have affected the state since Friday, the reality TV contestants are preparing a plan of action for when they return to their house tomorrow.
“When we get home we’re definitely going to come up with a fire escape plan,” Deb told HuffPost Australia on Monday. “Never in a million years would I have imagined we would have bushfires where we are, so it just goes to show it can happen anywhere and you need to prepare.”
The couple, who travelled to Melbourne last Wednesday ahead of The Block finale auctions, heard about the bushfires on Friday. Their children were still in the family home back in Wallabi Point on Friday but managed to escape the flames that reached up to 12 storeys in height just metres from their property.
“We were very relieved to see them land in Melbourne and in our arms,” said Andy.
While their home hasn’t been damaged, Andy said there were “10 to 12 storey flames about 100 metres away from our house”.
“Some houses in our area had fire even closer than that which is unbelievable,” added Deb.
“Thank goodness for our fire brigade who have quite literally saved lots of houses and lives. They’re the unsung heroes, they’re unsung for sure. We don’t see what they do all year round and then you have a crisis like this and they just go into action and they save lives and houses, it’s amazing.”
The couple say shock overwhelmed them when they first heard of the “scary” fires, but now they need to be practical and prepare as authorities forecast catastrophic fire danger for Tuesday.
“We were shocked. We were down here [in Melbourne] and when we heard what happened, we were absolutely shocked that it was fire moving towards our town and getting so close,” said Deb. “[We were] very unprepared but we won’t be anymore. We’ll be home and rectifying that.”
This is one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons, with parts of the country facing the worst droughts in living memory.
NSW and Queensland firefighters raced on Sunday to contain widespread bushfires that have left three people dead, and warned of “catastrophic” fire conditions ahead, including around Sydney.
Authorities upgraded the forecast for the greater Sydney region to catastrophic fire danger for Tuesday, the first time the city has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.
“High temperatures, strong winds and low humidity are forecast, making conditions dangerous,” the New South Wales state Rural Fire Service said in a statement.
Three people have died in New South Wales since Friday, when a record number of emergency-level fires were declared in the state, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.
Five people were listed by authorities as missing on Saturday afternoon, but local media said Sunday they had now been accounted for.
By Sunday afternoon, about half of the more than 70 fires burning in New South Wales were still not under control, with two burning at an emergency level.
With additional reporting by Will Ziebell (Reuters).