Australia — ALL that remains of the former Cockatoo kindergarten is a roof, a steel frame and some broken play equipment. But the 1976 structure has been saved from demolition after becoming the first site in Victoria to win heritage protection because of its significance as a bushfire refuge.
About 300 people – one-tenth of the town population – sheltered in the carousel-shaped building as the Ash Wednesday bushfires ripped through the Dandenong Ranges on February 16, 1983. Three men stood on the roof all night, kicking off embers. Seven Cockatoo residents died and 298 buildings were destroyed, but everyone at the kindergarten survived.
”I just remember we were all huddled under wet blankets,” said Donna Baguley, who was six at the time. Advertisement: Story continues below
The Heritage Council of Victoria has placed the building on the register as ”an outstanding representative example of places of refuge during natural disasters”.
The kindergarten ”shouldn’t have survived – it had an asphalt roof and lots of glass,” said grandmother Dot Griffin, who won a bravery award for her efforts to evacuate people from their homes. ”But it was the only place in town that was open.” Cockatoo was one of the worst-hit towns, in terms of buildings lost, in the fires, and only about 8 per cent of residents ultimately chose to remain.
Fire damage to the roof of the kindergarten meant chronic leaks, leading to its abandonment six years ago. Last August the council started demolition, intending to replace the building with a small memorial.
”But we didn’t want a tombstone, we wanted a building,” said Mary Farrow, who helped lead the campaign in her role as head of the community house in the nearby town of Emerald.
After an emotional week of protests, Heritage Victoria issued an interim protection order, which it later revoked, ruling the site was only of ”local significance”. But on April 4 the protesters learnt they had won their appeal to the Heritage Council.
Emerald Community House intends to help restore the building as a bushfire awareness centre. It also supports the Mercy Campaign, aimed at saving the lives of Bali Nine drug syndicate members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.