Tibooburra’s iconic two-storey pub rises from the ashes after fire

An Irish woman walks into a bar. The 140-year-old sandstone building smells of fresh paint and two flags fly above the spirits cabinet — one Irish, the other Australian.

There’s no punchline. The place just feels like home to bartender and backpacker Leona Keane.

But 15 months ago Tibooburra’s iconic two-storey pub was almost unrecognisable after a devastating fire.

The building built from local sandstone in 1882 was a shell filled with ash and debris.

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The town of less than 150 people is located in the remote far north-west corner of New South Wales, more than 1,200 kilometres from Sydney and Brisbane, and almost 900 kilometres from Adelaide.

According to Ms Keane, its isolation is its strength.

And from the ashes, hope has blossomed.

With the beer flowing and the kitchen cooking meals again, Tibooburra Hotel owner Tracey Hotchin says the spirits of many in town are high.

“I can’t thank everybody enough for what they did in trying to save the pub,” she said.

“We’ve just received so much support throughout the journey.”

‘Traumatic for everybody’
As one of two pubs in town and the only two-storey building within at least a 300-kilometre radius, the fire was a huge blow to the community.

“It was a shock, everybody was just in shock, they couldn’t believe it,” Ms Keane said.

For the owners it was a cruel blow, having poured their time, money and souls into the building.

The cause of the fire was believed to be an electrical fault.

“We’d renovated the hotel and spent a lot of money doing it up, and we were just in the process of starting to do our motel rooms down the back and beer garden.”

John Ainsworth was the Tibooburra Fire Brigade captain at the time of the incident.

He along with two other firefighters were seriously injured when a large gas bottle exploded.

He said at the time there was a somewhat reckless and utterly selfless desire by residents to help bring the blaze under control.

“It was fairly traumatic for everybody and people were doing their best to help out,” he said.

Back to business
More than a year after the fire, and despite renovations and reopening being partially delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pub now has dozens of customers through the doors each day.

Ms Hothcin says it’s hard to believe how far she and the business have come since the crushing devastation she felt in February last year.

“Some days it’s overwhelming and you just sit back and think about where you come and we’ve come a long way,” she said.

“We’ve got our motel rooms up and running now.”

While the total cost of rebuilding may not be known for three or four years, there’s little time to sit and wonder ‘what if’.

“You’ve got to move on, you can’t think about it,” Ms Hotchin said.

“It doesn’t do you any good if you’re trying to think why, how, if or when.”

A sense of joy
While the fire was a devastating blow for the outback town, its resurrection from the ashes has strengthened the bond of many in the community.

Residents, tourists and Leona Keane alike are hoping that the only way from here is up.

“Everybody is just amazed at the work that’s gone on and how we’re back open and how we’ve gotten back to this point,” she said.

“There’s a sense of happiness and obviously joy that we’re getting through it,”