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Before scorching bushfires ravaged the area, seafaring skippers navigating the narrows near Potters Croft would look out for the “signal” tree, a centuries-old blue gum that stood majestically near the water on the eastern Tasmania property.
But on a devastating day in January 2013, when hot, dry winds and a subsequent firestorm raged across the isthmus, the tree and all but one building on the rural property were lost to flames. The Dunalley bushfire left Potters Croft owners Tim and Tammy Holmes temporarily without a home. In a few intense hours, the fire incinerated six of their buildings and all their possessions.
Three years later, that tragic day is a receding memory. Soon after the fire, the family embarked on an ambitious rebuilding project. The Holmeses have crafted a charming family home from their surviving guesthouse, along with five new buildings, including a studio, barn and potting shed.
Tim and Tammy Holmes are thankful for every moment they spend together. In the years since the fire, the couple have returned to rebuild and reimagine the land with son Joe Holmes and his family (including the children pictured here), who live on an adjacent lot.
The Holmeses’ property commands an entire headland, providing the family with impressive views up and down the channel. The only visible clues that this tranquil place once saw a destructive bushfire are the piles of logs cut from the many trees that didn’t survive the blaze. There’s enough firewood to last through five years of cold Tasmanian winters.
The scene today is a far cry from what the family faced on January 4, 2013. Potters Croft was in the direct path of the Dunalley bushfire. Surrounded by fire, Tim and Tammy escaped with the five grandchildren they were looking after that day, fleeing to their jetty on the bay.
The ocher-tinted images Tim took of Tammy and their grandchildren huddled neck-deep in water under the jetty are now world-famous. “We found a thin lens of air just above the surface of the water, which itself took on an oily sheen,” Tim says. “A couple of times the jetty caught fire, but, thanks to my Akubra hat, I was able to use it as a bucket and put the fire out.” Later, when Akubra heard that story, the company sent Tim three new hats.
“We don’t talk about the fire much these days,” Tim says. “Most people prefer not to think about it, but in the days and weeks after the fire, the most common question I was asked was, ‘Will you go back?’ The answer was always, ‘Yes.’ Where else would I want to be? I have traveled to many countries and stayed in many beautiful places, but I have never found a place where I would prefer to live.”
The surviving guesthouse was a five-bedroom, four-bathroom lodge built by Tim from reclaimed convict-made bricks collected over the years from Tasmania’s Derwent Valley and nearby Tasman Peninsula.
“We were obliged by the authorities to keep off the property for about two weeks,” Tim says. “We spent about three months living in a rented house in another small hamlet with our extended family. However, I came back to our property in Dunalley just about every day.”
A builder and building designer by trade, Tim rebuilt his family’s property himself with help from a couple of tradespeople who had worked with him in the past.
He started by converting the guesthouse into their family home. This rustic-style structure, built with a Welsh aesthetic, is a reminder of the charming low-eaved buildings Tim grew up with in Wales. “Overall, the restoration took about a year, with some healthy breaks. The cleanup was the biggest job, including new fences, gates, etc,” he says.
The family made some modifications to the home. They changed the direction of the staircase to the upstairs bedrooms and installed an impressive secondhand kitchen. Tim added new shelving in a corner of the kitchen that displays some of his pottery, seen here on the rear wall, and fashioned an island counter from an old cedar table that he bought online.
The home’s sunny dining room looks out over the front yard. Just outside the front door is a paved sandstone courtyard bordered by a low stone wall made from local dolerite. Beyond that is a swath of well-manicured lawn that stretches over the crest and down to the bay.
The building dates to only 1988 but gets its character from salvaged building materials. Front veranda posts made from celery-top pine were rescued from Tasmania’s Styx Valley after the trees had been earmarked as waste lumber.
The trip up the property’s front drive is a lengthy one. Young olive trees and eucalyptuses line the long avenue. It will be a few years before these plantings mature enough to provide a canopy, but for now they’re a promise of things to come.
Behind a thick pittosporum hedge, the breathtaking view unfolds. A lush, sweeping garden is filled with a mix of head-high natives and cottage garden plants. There are proteas (Leucadendron), lavender bushes covered with purple blooms, red bottlebrushes (Callistemon), grevilleas, acacias and tall kangaroo paws.
Probably the best example of Tim’s sustainable building style is the new barn. The building’s north-, south- and west-facing walls are constructed from rammed earth nearly a foot thick. The ancient building method uses compacted natural raw materials — in Tim’s case, local gravel and sand — for a structurally strong framework. Rammed earth offers excellent thermal qualities, has no toxic off-gassing and acts as a heat shield in a fire.
In keeping with his environmentally responsible build, Tim incorporated reclaimed macrocarpa wood from a chicken farm in Ulverstone, Tasmania, and sourced beams from the nearby Eaglehawk Neck jetty. The result is an aesthetically pleasing, enduring structure that uses few material resources and is fire-resistant.
For Australians living near the bush, the daily possibility of bushfires is very real. New homes in the high-risk areas must meet strict regulations, which include choosing fire-resistant construction materials.
“Architectural discussion now focuses on ways to meet the … requirements and still look ‘natural,’” says Gregory Nolan, director of the Centre for Sustainable Architecture with Wood at the University of Tasmania. “People obviously don’t want to live in a building that resembles a bunker in anticipation of an event that may not happen in their lifetimes.” In Tim’s case, his rammed earth walls more than fit the bill.
On the front lawn across from the house is the charming studio, which family members fondly call “the boathouse” — although it’s nowhere near the water. In the future, they hope to relocate the studio down by the water’s edge to replace their boathouse lost in the fire.
This small studio, constructed in just a week, showcases Tim’s exceptional building skills. It was made nearly entirely from scrap: The four rusty wheels on which it sits were salvaged from an in-situ piece of agricultural machinery, and the wood paneling is reclaimed. Eventually the untreated boards will weather to a silvery gray, adding to the building’s rustic character.
Other outbuildings include a repurposed hay shed and a potting shed for Tammy. After the bushfire, the community came together to support Tammy by donating vouchers for the local garden center. For Tim, a keen ceramist, a legion of past clients returned the pots they had bought from him so that his work wasn’t completely lost.
The change in landscape has been an opportunity to start afresh. “We have taken the chance to install underground irrigation, new landscaping, ornamental gardens, an orchard and a new vegetable garden,” Tim says.
While they were transporting nutrient-rich soil from the old vegetable garden to the site of the new one, they found under the charred soil a half-dozen 80-year-old asparagus crowns that a friend had given to Tammy. The asparagus is now flourishing in its new home.
And that’s not the only surprise in the new vegetable patch. The low pickets surrounding the garden are the boards from the now-famous sheltering jetty. The tired boards were in need of replacing at the same time the vegetable garden needed a low fence that wouldn’t obscure the sun.
The couple carefully removed the boards and reassembled them as the kitchen garden’s front fence. The effect is of a jetty turned on its side, as though on display at a museum. The old boards have kept the scars of that blazing day. Amid the gray-green lichen, small black pockmarks from burns can be seen.
Along the southern perimeter of the Holmeses’ property is a stand of young blue gums. As well as being the floral emblem of Tasmania, blue gums are an important summer breeding ground for the endangered swift parrot, which migrates through the area on the way to its winter feeding grounds across the Bass Strait.
Most of the mature eucalyptuses had to be cut down after the fire, but thankfully for the parrots, a healthy forest of young blue gums is already taking hold.
For Tim and Tammy Holmes, the scorched fence and the soon-to-be-renovated jetty are daily reminders of the day their family members’ lives were spared. Along with the salvaged relics, the couple’s work is a tribute to rejuvenation and a renewed sense of purpose. It seems that all things have the chance of a new life at the Holmeses’ place.