The owners of one of Western Australia’s most infamous pubs have pledged to rebuild after the historic building was gutted by fire.
Detectives are investigating the cause of the blaze that has caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the Ora Banda Historical Inn. The fire is being treated as suspicious at this stage.
It is the third fire in the history of the 108-year-old pub, which was famously owned by former Criminal Investigative Bureau chief Don Hancock.
A burglar in the 1970s lit a fire inside the pub, which was also firebombed with explosives in 2000 following the fatal shooting of Gypsy Jokers bikie Billy Grierson at Ora Banda.
The person who shot Mr Grierson dead has never been formally identified, but the finger of suspicion pointed at Mr Hancock, who died in a car-bombing outside his Perth home in September 2001.
Residents watch pub burn to the ground
The once thriving gold mining town of Ora Banda, 70 kilometres north-west of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, had a population of about 2,000 people at its peak but today about a dozen residents call it home.
Many long-term residents huddled on the side of the road, using blankets to keep warm in freezing conditions, as they watched their beloved pub burn to the ground.
The roof had already collapsed by the time firefighters arrived about 6:30am on Saturday morning and it took another hour before they could use water to extinguish the blaze because Western Power needed to switch off the town’s electricity.
Onlookers suggested the pub’s old wood fire and chimney could be blamed for the blaze, but manager Kirri Pomery-Donnelly said the fire was out at closing time on Friday.
The inn was rebuilt by Barry Foote following the bombings two decades ago and purchased by Mike and Rhonda Lucas in 2006.
The couple has had the outback pub on the market for the past few years and rejected several offers.
Owners devastated by loss of ‘irreplaceable’ history
Mr Lucas was emotional when he spoke to the ABC at the fire scene, describing his “feeling of emptiness” at the loss of the “iconic” pub.
“It looks like all we’ve got left is four walls,” Mr Lucas said.
“The loss of equipment is easily fixed, but it’s the history that’s irreplaceable.
“We had honour rolls for our World War I veterans which have been lost and paintings of what the town looked like in its heyday and all this sort of stuff is gone.
“When you look at the devastation there now … when they tried to blow it up and all the things that have happened to it over the years, it’s never looked this bad.”
The fire comes after more than $1 million was spent to seal the road to Ora Banda last year to encourage more tourists to make the journey.
Mr Lucas said the pub was insured and he had received many messages offering support for a rebuild.
“That [insurance] covers the material things, but the historical things that just can’t be replaced are the issue,” Mr Lucas said.
“There is a lot of talk already [about rebuilding], the comments and messages from people I’ve had offering support had just been wonderful.
“You know we would love to see it again, but the question will be whether the walls are structurally sound. That’s going to be the biggest issue.”
Flag flies at half-mast outside pub
Adelaide prospector Marty Poole was one of the first on the scene just after 5am on Saturday morning.
“It was fairly well alight in the centre of the pub when I saw it,” he said.
“You could tell it was well and truly on fire.
“Being so dry, I think the timbers just took off within about 15 minutes and there wasn’t much anyone could do.”
Since 2006, Mr Poole has been coming to Ora Banda to prospect for gold with varied success.
“I’m like part of the family up here — it’s been my second home for four or five months of the year for over a decade,” he said.
“I’m going to really miss it.”
Damon Donnelly, who has managed the pub with his wife for the past four years, lowered an Australian flag to half-mast outside the pub in its honour.
Mr Donnelly had closed the pub on Friday night and was the last to leave with long-time patron Paul Abbott just after 11pm.
Mr Abbott said social club drinks on Friday nights had been part of the culture of the Ora Banda community.
“We’re a little devastated to be honest … I’ve been coming here since 1984,” Mr Abbott said.
“You could say we’re the last to have drinks at the Ora Banda pub.”