It was one of the more extraordinary stories of the 2013 bushfires – 54 people holed up in one house in Yellow Rock while four firefighters and the owner of the house battled the blaze outside.
They saved the house, and the lives of those inside, and have now been recognised with an Australian bravery award.
For Bob Pearson, news of the award came out of the blue.
“I’m a bit astonished really,” Mr Pearson said. “It was one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever had.”
It was the afternoon of October 17, 2013, and the fire storm that would claim more than 200 Mountains homes that day was raging.
With the only access road out blocked by fallen debris and shrouded in thick smoke, about 50 residents sought refuge at Yellow Rock lookout.
Robyn Gillies Tabrett, with her dog and horse, headed there because it had burnt out weeks earlier. But as time marched on, “I thought, great, we’ve got to the lookout and now we’re going to die here”.
As the group despaired, out of the smoke came the C patrol team from St Marys Fire and Rescue.
Officer Tony Gutteridge, told the Gazette at the time: “It was hectic. We had been going from job to job, doing snatch and grabs [rescues of people trapped in the fire] and the guy driving my truck, Phil Holdsworth, got a call from his wife saying his sister was trapped down there.
“We were on a mission, we drove through flames to get to the people, ran over trees with the truck, we had to get out there.”
They evacuated two women and their children to the Pearsons’ home nearby. Mr Pearson and one of the firefighters then returned to the lookout to bring the rest of the group there.
A total of 54 people (from age 13 weeks to 90), 23 dogs, three cats, a bird and a diabetic horse on a float parked outside the front door took shelter as the fire blazed outside.
Mr Pearson’s wife, Sue, distributed wet tea-towels to those huddled in her house and performed a loaves-and-fishes act with a few packets of Jatz.
Eventually at about 8pm, the Riot Squad arrived to lead the group out of the area. Several had to drive past the ashes of their own homes – 12 houses were destroyed in Yellow Rock Road.
Mrs Pearson said every person returned to thank them after the fires.
“Some brought plants, or flowers or wine – they all came over at some stage,” she said.
Mr Pearson, Mr Gutteridge, Mr Holdsworth and the two other members of the St Marys Fire and Rescue – Patrick Bugelli and Andrew Sarson – have received a group bravery citation for the efforts.
Mr Gutteridge said it was “good to get some sort of recognition, though we did get a commissioner’s award for it”.
The team of four is no longer together. Mr Holdsworth and Mr Sarson are still at St Marys but Mr Bugelli has retired and Mr Gutteridge is now with Fire and Rescue at Huntingwood.
Mr Pearson said: “They [the firies] do this sort of thing on a regular basis but under the circumstances it was always going to be a big question mark on how difficult it was going to be with 54 people here.
“There was a lot of pressure on them as they’d made the decision to bring them here.”
With bushfire season now declared in the Mountains, a month earlier than usual, Mr Pearson reflected on what had been a very dry winter and said: “We hope that we don’t ever have another day like that.”