Cause of Sandon Point tent embassy fire under investigation

Investigators are working to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed two cabins at the Sandon Point Aboriginal tent embassy, amid differing early theories.

Some members of the Aboriginal community suspect arson is to blame for the Tuesday night blaze, which razed two unoccupied tin and timber structures. 

However police say an unattended campfire may yet be proven the cause.

Up to 20 firefighters arrived at the site near Aragan Circuit in Bulli around 8pm to find the unoccupied cabins well alight and flames spreading into the tops of nearby trees.

Visiting the site on Wednesday, Uncle Richard Archibald said a series of recent unexplained fires in surrounding bushland made him believe Tuesday’s blaze was deliberately lit. 

“There’s young people – I’m guessing it was young people – going around lighting fires,” he said. “This has been going on since [the embassy] has been here – 18 years. It doesn’t take much for people, when they don’t agree with the Aboriginal people, to have a motive.” 

Embassy representatives have worked with fire authorities in recent weeks to limit the threat posed by fire. 

This included clearing vegetation, and allowing an unexplained fire to continue under close supervision, said Fire and Rescue NSW’s Superintendent Greg Houston. “Over the past few weeks we’ve had an increase of fires in the area and that will all come into this investigation,” he said. “There was a fire that occurred and when we arrived we were able to manage that fire –not extinguish it straight away, but manage it so it minimised the risk for the tent embassy.” 

Police are expected to meet with elders again later this week. Meantime, the investigation is ongoing, said Wollongong Local Area Command’s Charles Hutchins. “Police are still trying to determine the cause, but it's believed to be the result of an unattended campfire,” he said. 

The site shot to prominence after the remains of a 6000-year-old ‘clever man’ or ‘kuradji’ were discovered there in 1998. The immediate burial ground was untouched by Tuesday’s blaze.

Contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 to assist with the police investigation. 

We’ll rebuild after fire: elder

Cabins destroyed in Tuesday’s fire at Sandon Point tent embassy will be rebuilt – hopefully using materials donated by supporters, says a community elder.

Uncle Richard Archibald is calling on anyone with useful materials to make contact.

“Timber or tin – we’ll take it, if they want to volunteer the stuff,” he said. “We’ll get it back together. “We’ve put it back up that many times now – probably four times we’ve been burnt out.”

Mr Archibald said the site continued to serve as a cultural teaching ground for children and university students. 

Its buildings were also used as living quarters for “different people, people that just come here, stop here, put tents up here. They come from the Illawarra”.

The tent embassy was established in December 2000 in an attempt to block the nearby housing development, and its occupants have resisted numerous efforts to be moved on. 

After years of archaeological studies, the site was declared a significant Aboriginal place by the Office of Environment and Heritage in 2005.

Fire destroyed parts of the embassy in 2004, 2006 and in 2011, when an 18-year-old man living there was hospitalised with burns to his hands and feet.

After investigating, police attributed the 2004 fire to a candle – a finding refuted by embassy leaders.