‘Get the kids out of here’: family living in limbo after asbestos nightmare

Justine Upton shares a room in Thirroul with Kirra, Blaze and Ned. Work has kept the children's father, Peter, in Western Australia for most of the eight months since fire destroyed a neighbour's shed (inset). Main picture: Sylvia Liber
Justine Upton shares a room in Thirroul with Kirra, Blaze and Ned. Work has kept the children's father, Peter, in Western Australia for most of the eight months since fire destroyed a neighbour's shed (inset). Main picture: Sylvia Liber

Justine and Peter Upton heard hundreds of explosions the night their neighbour’s backyard shed went up in flames. 

Wild winds fanned the fire, pushing thick smoke into the Uptons’ Australind, WA, property and causing spot fires to bloom on their side of the fence. Neighbours helped to stamp out the smaller fires before the Uptons went to bed. But the real emergency was waiting for them when they awoke. 

“Outside it basically looked like it had snowed asbestos in our backyard."

“Outside it basically looked like it had snowed asbestos in our backyard."

“Pete went outside and came back white as a ghost,” Mrs Upton told the Mercury

“Outside it basically looked like it had snowed asbestos in our backyard.

“He said, ‘oh my God, get the kids out of here’.

“We basically walked out with what we were wearing. We couldn’t even take a blanket or a jumper from inside the house. We took nothing.”

The neighbour's shed after the September 8 blaze.

The neighbour's shed after the September 8 blaze.

Eight months since the September 8 blaze, the family is living in limbo, locked in a battle with insurers. 

After a stint in hotel and holiday accommodation, paid for by their insurer, CommInsure, Mrs Upton has returned to her parents’ Thirroul home, where she shares her childhood bedroom with her own children - Kirra (7), Ned (4) and Blaze (3). 

The room is cramped; if anyone wakes in the night they tend to disturb the others. But it is safe in Thirroul, and there is family there to lean on.

“At first [temporary accommodation] was a bit of a novelty, but we had to pass our street to get to school and the shops. Over time it just became so traumatic for the kids. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go home,” Mrs Upton said.   

Eight months since the backyard blaze, the family has yet to return home.

Eight months since the backyard blaze, the family has yet to return home.

The Uptons say their neighbour’s insurer, HBF initially agreed to cover the cost of remediating their property, but the company later changed its position.

CommInsure “tried to tell us that it wasn’t covered by our insurance policy”, before organising for an inspector to assess the extent of the contamination. 

The Uptons were dissatisfied with the “limited” testing, which didn’t include the inside of the house, and didn’t seem to factor in that asbestos could be present several centimetres away from a clean site selected for testing.

The inspectors had since produced three reports, each one different, with a fourth on the way.  

The Uptons believe contamination inside their home was made worse because they were in the midst of a renovation when the fire occurred, with areas including the roof cavity exposed.

The family has had to place their children on the National Asbestos Register, “in case anything happens in future”.

Meantime negotiations with their insurer, regarding the scope of the works required, continue. Statements from HBF and CommInsure have been published on the Mercury’s website.  

Full response, HBF spokeswoman: 

“HBF is the insurer for the property where the fire originally started.

“In regards to impacted neighbouring properties, these owners are required to lodge a claim with their insurer, which is then responsible for assessing the claim and approving remediation works.

“As such, the Upton family has lodged a claim with their insurer, Comminsure.

“To clarify, we have remediated another neighbouring property because they have an insurance policy with us and therefore lodged a claim, which we assessed and approved.”

CommInsure spokeswoman: 

“Whenever a customer is displaced from their home, CommInsure’s priority is to help them return as quickly as possible.

“Asbestos contamination is a serious issue that requires expert assessment and damage repair.

“In these situations we independently investigate and provide solutions to help the customer move back into their home quickly and safely.

“We are committed to doing the right thing for our customers and we work with them to reach an agreed outcome.” 

This story ‘Get the kids out of here’: family living in limbo after asbestos nightmare first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.