A FAMILY who lost everything they owned in a house fire are praising their 11-year-old as a hero, as they also share an important message with others.
Kyneton schoolgirl Ruby saved her brother Oscar's life, rescuing him as he slept in a burning house, in a room that collapsed soon after.
Alan Thorpe and fiancée Rhiana Iles had enjoyed the Christmas break together with their children at their former home in Shepparton. But then, on December 28, their world was turned upside down.
Rhiana and the five children - Taane, 14; Ruby, 11; Leah, 10; Max, eight; and Oscar, five - were at their Iluka Drive home. The youngsters were enjoying having their two cousins - Joshua and Aiden - over for a sleepover for the first time.
It was evening, just before 9pm, and two of the children were already asleep while the others were playing video games in their pyjamas.
Alan had ducked out to drop something off to a friend down the road, promising to join in the games when he returned in a few short minutes, while Rhiana was in the kitchen cleaning out a turtle tank.
Suddenly all of the televisions switched off. With the lights remaining on throughout the house, Rhiana ventured towards the garage thinking it was a simple case of flicking a switch on the electricity meter back on.
With Ruby right behind her, she opened the garage door.
"There was a big flame ball coming at us. The room was full of smoke - it was just black. It was terrifying. As I went to shut the door, the fireball hit the door and slammed it and pushed me into Ruby."
Rhiana started screaming out that there was a fire and for all of the children to run out the front of the house.
She went into the gaming room where daughter Leah, 10, was asleep. Leah has autism and takes medication that helps her sleep at night.
As she struggled to wake Leah, with adrenaline pumping, young Ruby kicked into gear.
With children spread out in rooms from one end of the house to the other, she echoed what Rhiana had said to inform the boys about the fire and to tell them to get out of the house.
As Rhiana struggled to drag a still sleeping Leah from the house, the other children started to run out of the front door - though some were confused and initially ran the wrong way.
As they frantically ran past the front bedroom, Ruby realised Oscar was still asleep in the front room.
While scared, she ran in and tried to lift him - but he was too heavy. So she dragged the sleeping five-year-old out of the house until he woke up about halfway down the driveway.
Ruby carried the five-year-old to the front letterbox where she began instructing her siblings and cousins to line up, as they do at school fire drills, for a headcount.
It was then Rhiana realised that her 14-year-old was still inside the house.
"I turned and ran back towards the house as he came to the front door. We were all screaming - there's a fire, get out!
"He was about a metre and a half away from the front door when a big fireball came out of the [garage] door. It went between him and the front door and hit the bedroom window.
"It sucked back in and when it did the house started exploding."
Within a few short minutes of opening the garage door, seeing the fire and evacuating the house they had all safely made it across the road.
Neighbours had begun to see the flames and hear the noise and flooded from their own homes on to the street, with several calling Triple Zero.
Alan had not been gone for more than 10 minutes and when he started driving back towards his house he was being trailed by a fire truck and could see black, billowing smoke before him.
Arriving in the street and with his attention drawn straight towards his burning house, Alan began screaming at the top of his lungs.
He is emotional when he thinks about it as he truly believed his family was still inside.
As the flames took hold of the home, he then spotted Rhiana and Max sitting across the road and his first thought was that they were the only two who had made it out.
Rhiana hurriedly informed him that a neighbour from up the road had gathered the other children and steered them away so they did not have to watch.
"I was running up and down the street looking for the kids but I couldn't find them," Alan said, "Until Ruby came flying down the street and jumped on me and we stood there and watched the roof fall in and the house burn to the ground."
Once the fire started and made it into the roof, the house was engulfed by flames within minutes.
Firefighters arrived on scene within five minutes, finding the house well alight.
Wearing breathing apparatus, they worked to make the scene safe and brought the fire under control within 20 minutes.
"It just happened so fast. We literally just watched our whole life disappear - within minutes, the whole house was gone," Rhiana said, but she praised fearless Ruby.
"If Ruby hadn't done what she'd done this wouldn't be a happy ending at all."
Aside from warning all of the boys, she also saved her brother Oscar.
She's no longer my 11-year-old stepdaughter - she's my 11-year-old hero. Without her that night, I wouldn't have been able to get all seven kids out.- Rhiana Iles
"She's honestly my little hero. If it wasn't for her he wouldn't be here because I had my 10-year-old in my arms.
"I would have had to go back in for Oscar and by that time our bedroom roof would have collapsed on top of him.
"She's no longer my 11-year-old stepdaughter - she's my 11-year-old hero. Without her that night, I wouldn't have been able to get all seven kids out."
The house was deemed a "total loss" with everything in it either burned, charred, melted or smoke damaged.
While the family and Leah's small kelpie cross service dog all made it out alive, from their pet birds to sentimental items, clothes, toys, furniture and electronics - the family lost everything they owned in the fire apart from what they were wearing at the time.
What they lost included their Christmas presents, and the kayak that Ruby had been so excited to receive.
Rhiana and Alan had been planning on moving to Ballarat early this year - they had packed up most of their belongings, which were in boxes in the garage.
"We had the removalist truck organised to take us to the house, everything was sorted but then the week prior to us moving out the house burnt down."
With a gap between moving out of their rental in Shepparton to their new rental in Ballarat, they were planning on going for a big camping trip.
"We bought camping gear before Christmas but unfortunately we lost all that in the fire. So then we were homeless."
It was a tough couple of weeks until they moved into their new home in Delacombe.
The night of the fire they tried to get into emergency accommodation but were told they would need to be split. Not wanting to do that, they stayed with a family member.
After securing emergency accommodation that could accommodate them all, they were later pushed out due to having their dog with them.
However, they were then kindly given a caravan free of charge at Ballan Caravan Park.
While weeks have ticked by, the event is still raw. Constant reminders are physical injuries - Alan tore his larynx, while both Ruby and Rhiana suffered back injuries from dragging the children out of the house.
There is also mental trauma. From stressors like hearing the sound of a helicopter flying overhead to constantly checking powerpoints, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses, everybody in the family has been impacted.
Though a barrier has stood in the way of them starting to rebulid their lives - a lack of funds. While they had contents insurance, they haven't yet been paid it. Continuing to battle with the insurance company, they do not know how long they will be forced to wait.
While they have replaced wardrobes by purchasing secondhand clothes and some basic discounted secondhand furniture to fill their empty new house, they have been unable to replace more expensive items like their son's iPad, which he needs for school.
They are not outwardly seeking charity but are accepting what is offered.
"We're rebuilding little bits and pieces to make our home feel like home," Rhiana said, though adding that one welcome offer would be counselling. "If people do reach out, that's fantastic."
Up until last week, they also didn't have toys for the children - with any money that comes in being used to buy food, pay rent and replace necessities.
One day they played hide and seek for hours but when the lockdown was announced, Rhiana knew they needed something to play with. Taking to Facebook, she made a post asking if anybody had any toys they could donate.
They did not expect a lot, being new to the area, but started receiving packages in the mail and people turning up with boxes of donations on their doorstep.
Their living room is now full of donations and the children are the proud owners of donated toys, bikes and scooters.
Of those who have helped includes Amanda from Blackwood Mineral Springs Caravan Park, who collected dozens of items for the family. She understood what they were going through, having also lost her home in a fire some years ago.
Rhiana described the support from the compassionate firefighters to outreach from the community after the fire as "amazing" and "overwhelming".
The family want Ruby to be recognised for the hero she is - something positive out of such a devastating incident.
"We can get through, we've got a roof over our heads, now we've got food in the cupboard and we've got each other and that's all that matters," Rhiana said. "But we want her to be recognised as a hero."
Specialist Fire Investigators determined the fire was started by a faulty mobile phone charger placed on a flammable surface.
Rhiana and Alan want others to be aware of the fire risk when using a charger that did not come with the device, as they were not aware prior to the fire.
Fire Rescue Victoria's North West Regional Acting Commander, Scott Gambino, praised Ruby for helping her family to evacuate.
"This incident could have ended in tragedy if not for her actions. This just shows that having a home fire escape plan and practising it regularly with your family can save lives."
This just shows that having a home fire escape plan and practising it regularly with your family can save lives.- Acting Commander Scott Gambino
He said firefighters often responded to preventable house fires caused by electrical equipment.
"I'd like to remind Victorians to ensure all electrical appliances are kept in good working order and replaced if damaged."
Energy Safe Victoria recommends for people to use the product-specific charger for all devices, including phones and laptops, to avoid the risk of fire.
A spokesperson warned about claims made by manufacturers of generic chargers about their compatibility with appliances.
"Power supplies and chargers are classified as equipment that requires certification and registration. Always check with the manufacturer or supplier of the particular device."
To reduce the risk of a devastating fire, Acting Commander Gambino also reiterated the importance of having smoke alarms installed in all bedrooms, living areas and hallways and to test them monthly.
He encouraged parents to show their children how to call Triple Zero (000) responsibly in an emergency.
When looking to buy a charger, check the EESS website (eess.gov.au/) where you can check that both the supplier and the charger is registered.
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