UNLOCKING THE PAST: Remembering the Abernethy bushfire of October 19, 2002

ICONIC IMAGE: Darren Pateman's Walkley-award winning photograph of the cricket match that took place at Cessnock as the bushfire approached in October 2002.
ICONIC IMAGE: Darren Pateman's Walkley-award winning photograph of the cricket match that took place at Cessnock as the bushfire approached in October 2002.

With a dramatic start to the bushfire season already confronting us, it is ironic that this month we commemorate the 15th anniversary of one of our worst local fires.

Saturday, October 19, 2002 was described by the Advertiser as ‘a day from hell’, one which left senior firefighters calling the fire the most ferocious they had ever encountered.

It was, in Australian parlance, ‘a stinker of a day’ with temperatures nudging 40 degrees.

In the early hours of the morning a fire was deliberately lit behind Cessnock racecourse. It accelerated quickly, splitting and becoming two major fire fronts with enormous flames shooting into the air and moving with great speed, ravaging communities at Abernethy, Kearsley and Kitchener.

Thirteen homes were destroyed in its path and tragically Ronald Gillett, a visitor from Sydney, died when his car was engulfed by flames on Kearsley Road. Long-time local residents called the bushfire the area’s worst disaster in more than 80 years.

As news of the devastating fires spread Darren Pateman, a photographer from the Newcastle Herald, was dispatched to cover the story.

On his way to Abernethy he passed a cricket match in progress, its players so intent on their game in Baddeley Park that they seemed oblivious to the encroaching flames.

Recognising that this extraordinary sight was quintessentially Australian in so many ways he snapped a spontaneous photo. It captured the bewilderment of the cricketers, who seem to have only just looked up and noticed that they were about to be overtaken by fire.

The teams on that day were the Station Hotel Kurri Kurri Stallions third grade side and the Cessnock Supporters.

Darren’s photo went on to become famous, reprinted in newspapers across Australia and then the world, even making the front page of The Times in London and winning a Walkley award in 2003.

Today the Station Hotel has a permanent reminder of this tragic fire and the extraordinary cricketers who kept on playing throughout disaster. A huge mural on the side of their building, painted by Grant Franklin, dramatically re-creates Darren Pateman’s photo.

Driving into Kurri Kurri from the east this is the first of the town’s wonderful murals which comes into view, making an eye-catching entry and giving us an enduring community memory of that extraordinary day.

Kimberly O’Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library