PETER Meddows was just 400 metres away when a raging inferno swallowed up the hopes and dreams of the Richmond Vale Railway Museum.
“There was nothing we could do,” Mr Meddows, the museum’s chairman, told the Newcastle Herald.
“The wind picked up, the ashes blew into an unburnt area and it just went. That was that.”
The museum, which boasts priceless artefacts belonging to the Hunter’s rich industrial history, contained within the best-preserved mine site in the region, has been a “labour of love” since its establishment nearly four decades ago.
That’s why Wednesday’s blaze is so devastating to the museum’s 150 volunteers.
As the dust settled on Thursday, with firefighters gaining the upper hand on the 900-hectare fire thanks to overnight rainfall and a drop in temperature, many of the museum’s volunteers returned to assess the damage.
The museum was the hardest hit.
“We spent 38 years struggling to keep it all together – but things were looking up, finally we were starting to move ahead properly,” Mr Meddows said.
“We had some good plans and were looking forward to a growth year next year.
“Now we’ve got to start all over again.”
The damage bill is expected to surpass $1 million.
And there are already initial discussions about how the museum will recover, with little money in the bank and insurance coverage not extending to the historical items.
The fire damage extends along two kilometres of track; the destruction of stainless steel passenger cars; a 100-year-old break van; at least 30 hoppers and damage to the number one bridge.
“Some of the hoppers have taken 500 to 1000 hours to restore,” Mr Meddows said.
“Now they’re just gone, now they’re just piles of bloody ash.”
At the centre of a police investigation into how Wednesday’s blaze erupted will be determining how a car came to be dumped and set alight in bushland on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Rural Fire Service continues to warn residents that the Hunter faces a particularly dangerous fire season this year.
“We’ve seen in the last few days how quickly fires can develop and threaten homes and lives, so it’s a timely reminder to get ready,” RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
Fire stations will open their doors at the weekend to assist residents.