General News

25 February, 2024

Lost to the flames - Catastrophic burning of Warrack family’s home

The thoughts and well-wishes of the community are with Woodbine’s previous chief executive Bernie O’Connor and his family this week, as they deal with the loss of their home in Pomonal.

By Caitlin Menadue

The ruins of the O'Connor's treasured family home after last week's fires tore through Pomonal.
The ruins of the O'Connor's treasured family home after last week's fires tore through Pomonal.

Mr O’Connor and his wife, Karen, relocated to Pomonal last year following his retirement, but Mr O’Connor soon discovered retirement wasn’t for him, and returned to work as a project officer for Rural Northwest Health.

Mr O’Connor was working in Warracknabeal on Tuesday, monitoring conditions after a Total Fire Ban and Catastrophic fire danger were announced.

He said when the Pomonal fire advice was released at 2.30pm, he could only hope for the best.

"I was at work, keeping an eye on the news and advice," Mr O'Connor said.

"We were thinking of the placement of the house, and that being on a main road we should be reasonably okay.

"I got a text from a friend late afternoon saying, ‘sorry about your house’.”

The O’Connor’s home was one of 46 destroyed by the February 13 fires.

"The kids call it their spiritual home," Mr O'Connor said.

"They grew up in that house and they went to Pomonal Primary School.”

Ellie and Tim O’Connor both live in Ballarat, but are making a trip back home to support their parents and see the damage for themselves.

"My daughter was let in by police when she told them she was here to help mum and dad," Mr O'Connor said.

"Tim is caught up at work, but is coming down next week."

Member for Lowan Emma Keely made a personal call to Mr and Mrs O’Connor to offer her assistance, empathy and most importantly, a friendship.

Ms Keely took a photo of the O'Connor property when she visited Pomonal last Thursday.

"She said ‘I won't post it anywhere, but when you're ready, let me know and I can send you the photo’, and so we did," Mr O'Connor said.

Mr O’Connor said seeing the photograph helped prepare them for what they would face when they were finally allowed back on the property for the first time last weekend.

The empty metal shed was the only thing left standing on his half-acre block, and Mr O'Connor said they don't expect to find anything left.

"It was the most confronting thing," Mr O'Connor said.

"It's devastating all the memories are gone.

"We've lost so many memories, albums, my wife's wedding dress, a drawing from a family member in the war."

The pain of losing their private and most loved treasures like paintings their children did at school is hitting hard.

Mr O’Connor said the number of people reaching out to offer their support has been unbelievable.

"I've been getting messages from people I haven't heard from in 20 years," Mr O’Connor said.

"Friends from the kids have been reaching out.

"I used to play cricket, so people from the club have also been reaching out."

Mr and Mrs O’Connor are currently renting a place in Warracknabeal, and will be living there for the time being while they assess the property and their options.

Mr O'Connor said when he called their insurance company, Woolworths Everyday Insurance, they were offered immediate rental and hardship payments to support them.

"When I rang on Saturday the lady said she will get temporary fencing around the property," Mr O'Connor said, and when they returned to the property the next day, the temporary fence has already been erected around their entire property.

"I'm just amazed at their speed and their no-nonsense approach."

Mr O'Connor said he has no complaints with how the incident and recovery is being handled.

He said Ararat Rural City Council is playing an active part in the community, local store owners helping where they can, and the residents of Pomonal came together for a community barbecue last weekend.

"The shire is out all the time and the local committee has told the store to not charge anyone who has lost their house," Mr O'Connor said.

The couple are still considering rebuilding on the property, but said they are still taking it day by-day.

"We'll see what happens," Mr O'Connor said.

"We thank our lucky stars that everyone is fit and well.”


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