The smell of acrid smoke still hung in the air as an exhausted Richard Ellery approached the burnt out husks of trays, baskets and sticks several hours after fire destroyed a substantial portion of their infrastructure.
“I’m bewildered,” he said.
As the general manager of Graham Barclays Oysters, one of the biggest producers of Sydney Rock Oysters in the country, Mr Ellery had been roused from sleep at around 11.30pm on Monday night to arrive at a scene by Wallis Lake where flames leapt 100 feet high in the air.
“I was pretty worried as I drove down Macintosh Street and could see the glow. But when I got here I could see the firies had it contained and it was under control,” he said, with a nod of relief towards the tarring shed which remained untouched.
“If it had got over there things might have been different.”
Fire and Rescue NSW’s Forster captain Paul Langley said the first call came in around 11pm for what was thought to have been an apartment on fire.
“Then it was a grass fire, then it turned out to be the oyster lot at Barclays.”
Capt Langley estimated the fire had been going for some time by the time they arrived on the scene.
“Thankfully there was no wind so we had it under control in reasonable time. But the whole block – around 50 metres by 40 metres – was very solidly stacked with oysters trays up to 10 feet high. It also infringed on bush which encroaches on small residential areas.”
Capt Langley expected to evacuate some residents but crews from Forster, Taree and Wingham along with two extra Rural Fire Service trucks were able to “knock bush out which was beginning to catch on fire.”
“We were able to keep it contained to the area, then completely deluged it.”
Drawing water from Breckenridge Channel, he said the job to put out the fire was made more difficult by the tar coating the timber trays, as tar ‘likes’ fire. Further compounding the problem was the plastic and galvanised steel in the mix adding to the toxic fumes.
“The smoke was quite acrid, but because there was no wind the smoke went straight up in the air,” he said, adding the 30 odd personnel had to fight the fire from 20 to 30 metres away.
Manning Great Lakes Command Inspector Tony Powers said police are treating the fire, which took place on publicly accessible land, as suspicious.
“There doesn’t appear to be an external thing that could have ignited it. The forensic group has been, detectives are following up, if anyone knows anything please come forward,” Inspector Powers urged.
Mr Ellery said that the business had faced worst challenges, such as the hepatitis A contamination in the late 1990s, but termed last night’s fire as a massive imposition.
“It’s certainly going to make things difficult.”
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