A phalanx of uniforms greeted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge inside the Springwood-Winmalee Girl Guides Hall at Yellow Rock on Thursday. They belonged to Rural Fire Service volunteers, fire brigade officers and other emergency services workers from the Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury and Lithgow area.
The Royal couple walked from table to table asking questions and listening with intent.
“I want to shake as many hands as I can. Everyone,’’ Prince William told the volunteers.
“What’s your story?” he repeated with every new introduction. He talked cricket: “I’m a terrible bowler.” He talked fire-fighting techniques: “What was most effective for the crews?” He talked rebuilding: “It must be wonderful being a part of a community that works together.”
He singled out a 16-year-old who worked the communication lines when the bushfire came to town — while his house was burning. Not that he told the Prince that.
Ten metres away, the Duchess was engrossed in the sheer dimensions of the disaster, and marvelled that no lives were lost.
Murray and Fiona Hillan were waiting for the couple, armed with their tale of woe and resilience. While they worked in Sydney, their home was incinerated. Walking down a darkened Singles Ridge Road at 10pm that night, the family was unsure what they would find.
“We walked down the street in the dark and we couldn’t orient to anything because it had all changed. When we got to our house we saw this little glow. That was it,” Mr Hillan said. “At midnight we had to go and buy some clothes because all we had was what we were standing up in.”
Mrs Hillan said she was overcome that the Royals cared.
“It is wonderful. I nearly said it almost makes it worthwhile, but it doesn’t really. It doesn’t replace everything that we’ve lost but it certainly helps the healing process,” she said.
Clad in her oversized blue fire jacket, Julie Willis nudged her way around the crowd of fire colleagues to tell her story. The community fire service volunteer had spent a day putting out spot fires in a neighbouring suburb, while in the back of her mind knowing her abode was probably no more. She was right. Flames six metres high had destroyed her Yellow Rock home in seconds.
Despite the heartache, Thursday was a day to be proud.
“It’s lovely that they’ve taken time out to see the devastation that was caused here. This a wonderful community which is working together. We will come back from this stronger,” she said.
After a short lunch the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge walked out to greet the screaming masses, iPhones at the ready. In front of a bevy of girl guides, the pair helped plant a tree before being serenaded by a rollicking, dance-move version of a Guides song Bravo.