By CRAIG McTEAR
DIRECTOR Kylie Dean and her staff were united in shock and grief yesterday morning when fire ravaged Woolgoolga's Rainbow Cottage.
Residents raised the alarm at 6.24am and fire crews arrived to see the long-day care centre and pre-school in Turon Parade well alight.
Thankfully, no-one was in the building when the blaze began, a mere 75 or so minutes before opening.
A total of 42 children, aged between two and five, had been booked in for the day, but mums and dads were advised of the drama through radio announcements or by staff on arrival.
The Department of Community Services has been making alternative arrangements at other centres for families needing their help during the crisis.
Kylie said the damage bill could be as high as $550,000.
"We do know it costs $800,000 to build and fit out a new centre these days," she said.
Investigators examining the structure yesterday say the fire, which started in the roof, may have been sparked by an electrical fault.
Police confirmed there were no signs of forced entry.
Firefighters were concerned for the neighbouring Woolgoolga Art Gallery which, as it turns out, was spared any damage.
Kylie thought her husband, who works nearby, was joking when he rang her and told her there was a fire and to get down there quickly.
She had to make her way through the fleet of fire trucks before she could see the devastation.
The flames claimed a large part of the roof and the three activity rooms below it as well as a staffroom, bathrooms and a laundry, while there was smoke and water damage to a kitchen and a teaching area.
It appears the offices, which were broken into only a couple of weeks ago, are the only parts of the facility to have been untouched, along with a storeroom.
Neighbours had tried to take toys and furniture off the verandah out of harm's way while waiting for brigades to arrive.
"I'm just devastated," Kylie said.
"This is going to be hard for the community."
The centre has taken in countless children between Emerald Beach and Corindi for almost two decades. It is run by a parents' committee, has 10 permanent staff and only closes its doors at Christmas.
With more than 90 families relying on the services it provides, Kylie said there was a need for the vital work at the centre to resume down the track.
"We're the only community-based centre of this type between Grafton and Coffs Harbour," Kylie said.
Paige Alexander has only worked at Rainbow Cottage for two-and-a-half months after moving from Sydney to start anew.
She's there Mondays to Fridays to look after nine kids daily.
"I'm very devastated to be honest. A lot of effort has been put in by all the staff," Paige said.
"I come to work for my children. Now they have nowhere to go."
Firefighters with breathing apparatus smashed their way in through doors and windows to fight the blaze. They were at the scene for two hours.
A total of 20 firefighting personnel in five vehicles from both NSW Fire Brigades and the Rural Fire Service responded.