Illowa fire family counts the cost - and blessings

AN Illowa family is counting its blessings after a shed fire destroyed many of their belongings earlier this week.

Matt Cole, his daughter Carly, 6, and girlfriend Danni McElroy in the ravaged remains of the shed destroyed by fire on Wednesday night. Cars, motorbikes, a caravan, tools and most of Ms McElroy’s possessions were lost in the blaze.      140523AM40 Picture: ANGELA MILNE

Matt Cole, his daughter Carly, 6, and girlfriend Danni McElroy in the ravaged remains of the shed destroyed by fire on Wednesday night. Cars, motorbikes, a caravan, tools and most of Ms McElroy’s possessions were lost in the blaze. 140523AM40 Picture: ANGELA MILNE

Witnesses said flames leapt six metres above the large garage on Wednesay evening, but no one was hurt and the new family home on Illowa Road was spared thanks to a swift response from the CFA.

Its owner, electrician Matt Cole — himself a CFA volunteer —  yesterday thanked the firefighters from 13 local brigades who helped save his house.

He said many of the family’s possessions were stored inside the 15x25-metre shed, which was used as the property’s main dwelling for three years until about four months ago. 

Photos, furniture and multiple vehicles were inside, but despite expecting very little to be returned on insurance, Mr Cole is staying positive.

“It’s obviously tough,” he told The Standard.

“The milk’s been spilt, there’s no point crying over it.

“No one’s hurt and we’ve still got our lives. Several neighbours have offered support.

“Everyone sort of wants to help out, but there’s nothing anyone can do. Everything was stored in that shed.”

The young family arrived home from shopping about 6pm on Tuesday and noticed smoke across the front of the house, but assumed it was coming from a neighbour’s bonfire.

As the smell grew stronger, Mr Cole went outside again and saw smoke coming from the spout of his backyard shed.

Racing over, he opened the roller door to find it full of black smoke and managed to save his blue XC Ford Falcon. 

However, as he returned for other vehicles, the situation became even more dangerous.

“Some acetylene exploded and blew a hole in the roof, then gas bottles in the caravan and other gas bottles from welders were going off,” Mr Cole told The Standard.

“It was dangerous. I had heaps of ammunition in there for firearms that were probably volatile.

“The explosions were so loud it cracked the mirror in our bathroom.

“My daughter, who’s six, was screaming from the noise.”

The blaze could be seen from Dennington as 13 fire crews from Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Kirkstall, Koroit, Woodford, Winslow, Woolsthorpe and Toolong worked to protect the family’s house less than 10 metres away.

As a CFA volunteer in Warrnambool for 12 years, Mr Cole has often faced fires from a different perspective. 

“I’m usually attending, not waiting for the fire truck to arrive,” he said.

“(The firefighters) were doing an external attack more than internal and a fair bit of asset protection to the house.”

While the home was completely unscathed, the shed’s contents included a drag car, a work van and tools, two motorbikes, ride-on mowers, diving equipment, a 10-kilowatt solar system and the property’s water tank and supply.

Mr Cole’s girlfriend Danni McElroy lost most of her belongings, which were still packed in the garage after a recent move from Adelaide. 

He estimated 90 per cent of her possessions were destroyed, including photos and clothing.

“She’s lost absolutely everything bar the clothes on her back,” he said.

“I’m an electrician, so I know it wasn’t an electrical fault. 

“I’m 100 per cent sure it was a battery charger on the ride-on mower — it was the only thing plugged into anything.”

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