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"I had to go in there": Lucky escape as bushfire damages NSW sign business

Mick Stocker of Mick’s Sign Shop in Forster on the NSW Mid North Coast was across the road helping to put out a fire on a neighbour’s property when he noticed his own building was in trouble.

by Graham Osborne

Micks neighbour
  Mick Stocker's photo of the fire behind his neighbour's business

“I was just about to drive home and saw all this smoke behind McNamara’s Frames across the road and they’ve got timber stacked up to the ceiling,” Stocker told Wide Format Online. “So I’ve gone over there to help put their fires out with a hose. I turn around and there’s a bloke trying to kick my door in. He thought I was still in the workshop.

“What happened was an ember had flown probably a kilometre across from the bushfire towards us and landed in some mulch against our tin shed. It went under the wall sheet into the timber studs and into a small void area, which acted as a chimney. It went straight up to 50-year-old hardwood timber trusses at the top and just took off up in the roof in the ceiling above the office.

“I flipped off my thongs and bolted across the road and got inside. I’m in there in pitch black toxic smoke and the only thing I could see was a fire and a garden hose. I got the hose and got back outside to a tap, then went up into the ceiling and just started hosing it out. It was pretty full-on, mate. If I was here five minutes earlier I could have stubbed it out with my toe, but five minutes later and Mick’s Sign Shop would have been gone. The whole building would have been flat to the ground.”

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                   Damage to a reception area wall at Mick’s Sign Shop, Forster NSW

 Stocker is hoping insurance will cover the cost of repairs to the business he’s run for more than 32 years. 

“It damaged about four metres of the roof and they don’t make that kind of sheeting anymore so it will be a new roof. I’m just hoping the landlord, who is my dad, has insurance that covers me for being out of pocket for loss of trade while it’s all happening."

He says the bushfires that have swept through New South Wales and Queensland in recent weeks are like nothing he’s ever seen.

“I’ve been affected for almost a month now, fighting fires at home all around our place with the neighbours, juggling, “Do we run? Do we stay?” We got evacuated from home last night at 6pm and got back in at midnight. Yeah, it’s been a barrel of fun. I’ve never seen anything like it. The town has never seen a fire come through the town like that before.

“We got lucky," Stocker says. “Some of the trusses got burnt so I’ve got to basically pull the office apart – well, you know, hopefully the insurance will do it.

“I’m still open for business but it’s been interrupted for sure and will be further interrupted when they start pulling the roof sheets off and the wall sheets out.  Being a sign business with a digital printer and digital media, it’s going to be a bit of a mess trying to keep everything clean while they rip my building apart. I’m going to ring Graphic Art Mart and see if they can send me a roll of plastic sleeves so I can cover everything."

Mick’s trusty Mimaki CJV30 printer (pictured) emerged from the fire unscathed.

micks mimaki

“The printer was in a different room but not far away, I’d say only six metres away from where the fire was. That’s all I could think of, that printer. The first thing I did the next day was do a test print on it, which was a relief. I thought the data cables might run through the roof but they go direct from the PC to the printer. It’s a Mimaki 1300-wide print/cut, about nine years old now. It doesn’t run hot like it would in Sydney or Newcastle but it’s something I use two or three times a week sort of thing.”

Three people have died and more than 300 homes have been destroyed over the past few days in devastating bushfires across NSW and Queensland. The Fair Work Ombudsman is offering help to businesses that need to temporarily close because of the bushfires. Visit here for details.

600 NSW schools and hundreds of businesses across bushfire affected areas were closed down on Tuesday, and 100 schools on the state's north coast remain closed today (Thursday). Port Macquarie, a coastal town on the Mid North Coast of NSW, was “pretty much closed” by bushfire smoke on Tuesday but Dave Marshall, owner of Sign City Plus, kept his doors open. “Most businesses were closed but we opened and it was almost business as usual. I did notice our internet activity was down but I expected that. I think the impact on signage businesses could depend on what part of the business you’re in. There has been a lot of road signage destroyed in the fires and that will need to be replaced. We’ll see how things pan out over the next few weeks. It was very smoky here yesterday but today it’s back to beautiful again. The dolphins are jumping, the fish are swimming, what can you say?”

Mick Stocker says he wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing again to save his sign business in Forster.  “I had to go in there. You’ve got your whole life in the business, you know? I was 16 years old when I started it so I wasn’t going to let it go.”

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    Mick's Sign Shop, Forster NSW (before the fire)