Brave acts of our firefighting heroes

 

Bodies battered, faces smudged with ash, eyes reddened­ by the heat - weary firefighters are being hailed as heroes by the country towns they are protecting from raging infernos.

For the past 67 days, there have been between 500 and 1500 firefighters on the ground every day and night.

More than two dozen of them were injured over an horrific weekend as they put their bodies and lives on the line to protect communities in northern NSW.

A firefighter defends a property in Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled
A firefighter defends a property in Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled

Many were struck by smoke inhalation and minor injuries, an RFS spokesman told The Daily Telegraph on Sunday, but two were seriously injured when a tree fell on their truck near Coffs Harbour and trapped them.

They were helping to fight a fire at Nambucca Heads when a falling tree hit their truck.

"One firefighter was partially outside the truck when the tree fell, causing injuries to her head and neck," Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter said.

"The impact of the tree falling on the roof also caused head injuries to another firefighter inside the truck."

An injured firefighter is treated after battling the bushfires in northern NSW. Picture: ABC
An injured firefighter is treated after battling the bushfires in northern NSW. Picture: ABC

Paramedics freed them and they are in hospital in a stable condition.

Wauchope brigade captain Donna Anthony said that she had "never seen anything like" the conditions she was experiencing.

"I've been speaking to guys who have been in 30 to 40 years and they've only seen conditions like this twice."

Ms Anthony spoke with a rasp to her voice as her brigade was taking a brief respite from months of firefighting in the drought-ravaged region. A number of fire fronts were merging into a "mega-fire" as she spoke, it had scorched more than 300,000ha of bush to the west of her sleepy town.

"It's what we train for," she said. "At the moment I can hear some crews asking if they can go back, they want to help because they can hear what's happening over the radio."

State Rural Fire Service headquarters at Homebush on Sunday. Picture: Monique Harmer
State Rural Fire Service headquarters at Homebush on Sunday. Picture: Monique Harmer

 

Ms Anthony's crew have been running 12-hour shifts and doing "hot changes" - where one crew literally steps out of the truck and a fresh crew gets in.

"It's very tough," she said. "Morale is good. But we had been at a fire (up north) and were driving down to Harrington for another when I saw a glow over another fire, and another.

"I just thought, really?"

 

Glen Elgin Rural Fire Fighter James Gresham has been battling blazes at Barool National Park for weeks trying to stop it jumping the Grafton Hwy into his community.

On Friday night, "fire night" in the outskirts of Glen Innes, Mr Gresham was protecting a home on a ridge near the national park when a blaze reignited. "It was like a bomb had gone off," he said. "You could hear the Wytaliba crew asking for help over the radio."

Resident Gary Wilson said firefighters saved his life just when he thought "this is going to be f … ing" it.

Gary Wilson was saved by firefighters just when he thought he was a goner. Picture: Adam Yip
Gary Wilson was saved by firefighters just when he thought he was a goner. Picture: Adam Yip

The Wytaliba resident, who has been battling fires for weeks, was one of the 33 of 85 residents whose home was saved on Friday night.

It wasn't the first time his home had been spared from the flames. The animal rescue shelter owner said he had been at home fighting the fire by himself two weeks ago when it was rushing towards him "six feet" high. "The rocks and dirt around me started to smoke, it was that hot," he said.

"I thought that was it for me, and I was alone - it was pretty tough. But then 16 fire trucks turn up and I have to say, a little bit of pee came out."

NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer father and son team Bob and Greg Kneipp after successfully defending a property in Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled
NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer father and son team Bob and Greg Kneipp after successfully defending a property in Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled

Another time, he was saved by helicopter.

"We were using rakes to try to brush the leaves away from the home but it was just getting closer," he said.

"All of a sudden this helicopter flew overhead and I could see the guy hanging out of the helicopter.

"He raised his hands to say he would be back in five minutes­. Then he comes back and just dumps water on us and saves our home with all of the joeys in it."

A burnt out car in a property destroyed by a bushfire at Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled
A burnt out car in a property destroyed by a bushfire at Torrington, near Glen Innes, on Sunday. Picture: AAP/Dan Peled

Mid-north coast group commander Andrew Tulloch said the community had been outstanding, offering free dinners­, support and thanks everywhere they went.

He watched a South Australian Country Fire Service crew load a NSW Illawarra truck and get in cheering. They were bound for Johns River where a massive fire had broken­ containment lines.

"It doesn't matter what badge you wear on your sleeve, this is a team, this is a family, and we have people to protect," he said.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, along with the 1300 firefighters on the ground right now from across Australia and New Zealand, they were in contact with colleagues­ from Canada and the US for possible help in light of Tuesday's predicted forecast.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons with Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier John Barilaro at the Fire Control Centre at Wauchope. Picture: Nathan Edwards
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons with Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier John Barilaro at the Fire Control Centre at Wauchope. Picture: Nathan Edwards

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also prepared to deploy army reservists to help firefighting efforts should conditions worsen again.

FEAR AND FORTUNE ON THE FRONTLINE

We knew the fires were bad, but the call didn't come through until Friday evening that our crew was needed.

At 6am the next morning, four of us from the Thirroul unit suited up with all our bushfire gear and left to join the other units in the north. We arrived in Taree to join task force Romeo and trucks from Kiama, Macquarie Fields and Menai but from the moment we jumped out of the truck we were swamped.

The fire was moving so quickly - we'd be conducting property protection in one street, then get a call and have to race to the next. The smoke was so thick, you couldn't see anyone in front of you - we thought a pair of homeowners were missing for a while but we just couldn't see them through the smog.

Wollongong firefighter Rod Watts cools down on the job at Tallwood Estate. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Wollongong firefighter Rod Watts cools down on the job at Tallwood Estate. Picture: Peter Lorimer

One property had oxygen bottles that caught alight, and the explosions left us ducking for cover.

With the flames crowning at the tops of the trees, one property was under serious threat, and as the couple didn't want to leave, preservation of their lives became our priority.

The wind swirled the flames everywhere, and we'd put one section out, only to have the wind swing back around and set it alight again. It was incessant. There were three trucks fighting for their property at one stage.

Wollongong firefighter Rod Watts, left, at Tallwood Estate fire south of Taree. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Wollongong firefighter Rod Watts, left, at Tallwood Estate fire south of Taree. Picture: Peter Lorimer

We had to fill our truck's water at least four times. But around 8.30pm the flames finally eased off for good. In those hours, despite our efforts, three properties were lost. Packing up to head for Port Macquarie's Charles Sturt University, we had six hours to eat, sleep in the dorms and recharge before ­another 6am wakeup call which had our crew headed for Diamond Flat on Sunday.

The conditions were slightly better, as our containment lines held but one home was still lost.

It's not looking good for on Monday and Tuesday. We've got long days ahead of us and the fight is far from over.

- Firefighter Rod Watts, Unit 461

DEAR FIREYS, THANK YOU FOR KEEPING OUR FAMILY SAFE

Oliver Castle and his siblings Emily, Michael and Lachlan made heartfelt signs of thanks for the firefighters fighting to save their Diamond Beach home.

Oliver, 11, on Sunday said he wanted to thank the firefighters for making him feel safe.

"They're doing an amazing job," he said. "Today at home, we saw a bunch of fire trucks go past and an Elvis helicopter and a bunch of water planes.

"We could see them emptying the water and we wanted to say 'thank you, you're doing a good job. Thank you for keeping us protected,'" he said.

Diamond Beach kids Emily, 9, Michael, 8, Lachlan, 13, and Oliver Castle, 11, made this magnificent thankyou sign for firefighters and have been making them sandwiches and drinks. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Diamond Beach kids Emily, 9, Michael, 8, Lachlan, 13, and Oliver Castle, 11, made this magnificent thankyou sign for firefighters and have been making them sandwiches and drinks. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Up the road, Bronte Mahaffrey, 12, also made a sign to express her thanks to firefighters.

Her mum Nicole said: "Bronte can see the efforts that the firefighters are making, putting in their own time and risking their safety to keep their community safe."

The first signs Bronte and her mum made this morning were inviting evacuees into their home.

"We wanted to offer up our spare room," Ms Mahaffrey said. The pair also prepared lunch and dinner for the local fire station.

"We're very appreciative of their efforts," Ms Mahaffrey said.

Bronte Mahaffrey, 12, made this sign to thank firefighters for a great effort in her under siege neighbourhood. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Bronte Mahaffrey, 12, made this sign to thank firefighters for a great effort in her under siege neighbourhood. Picture: Peter Lorimer

She said it was a miracle firefighters have been able to save so much property in Old Bar and surrounding areas.

"To have achieved so little property loss is amazing," she said.

- Joanna Panagopoulos

TRAPPED ON ROOF AS FIRE BORE DOWN

As Jo Vakaahi stood on her roof with a hose, as a ferocious bushfire barrelled towards her home, her frightened dog accidentally knocked the ladder over, leaving her trapped.

An emergency warning was in place on Saturday for the Hillville bushfire south of Taree, which threatened a number of towns including Old Bar, Wallabi Point and South Taree.

As people evacuated Old Bar Ms Vakaahi stayed to defend her home.

The fire at Hillville fire not far from Tinonee and a short distance from Taree on Saturday. Picture: Alan Small
The fire at Hillville fire not far from Tinonee and a short distance from Taree on Saturday. Picture: Alan Small

With the savage bushfire just 500m away, she said she climbed up on to the roof with a hose and a wet tea towel wrapped around her head in a desperate bid to do what she could to save her home.

"It's all still and eerie, there's no birds around … I was really scared."

It was in that moment that Ms Vakaahi's dog knocked down the ladder, leaving her stuck on the roof as the fire bore down.

Brooke and Tristan Smith blacken out bush near their home at Wallabi Point on Saturday. Picture: AAP/Darren Pateman
Brooke and Tristan Smith blacken out bush near their home at Wallabi Point on Saturday. Picture: AAP/Darren Pateman

Fortunately, neighbours came to her rescue. After an anxious night the fire was downgraded to a watch and act alert.

- Hannah Higgins

SYDNEY TRADIE LEADS CHARGE WITH WATER TANKER

It was a case of all hands to the pump when bushfires threatened Johns River on Sunday - with Western Sydney construction worker Steven Rhind leading the charge.

Braving the ferocity of the fires in only shorts, a T-shirt and thongs, the 55-year-old manned the hose on his water tanker, his son Joel, 24, behind the wheel, as they drove around helping neighbours.

Steve Rhind and his son Joel battle the fires with a water tanker. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Steve Rhind and his son Joel battle the fires with a water tanker. Picture: Nathan Edwards

While they live in Denham Court, the Rhinds own 200ha at Johns River where they hope to run cattle.

Steven and Joel worked tirelessly to spray 98,000 litres of water to fight the fire front and fill gutters so embers didn't catch alight.

"We do it to stop people losing their houses," Mr Rhind told The Daily Telegraph.

"It's just what Aussies do. It would have been a lot worse if they didn't have the water tanker.

"I've been going for four days solid. It's all about helping the community."

Steve Rhind uses his tanker to help fight the fires. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Steve Rhind uses his tanker to help fight the fires. Picture: Nathan Edwards

One of the homes he helped save belonged to Johns River Fire Chief Bruce Dudley, who has been out fighting fires for the past three weeks. He said he knew the time would come when his own home would be under threat.

"I have been waiting for this for two days, so I have taken the time off to protect my own place," Mr Dudley said.

Joel Rhind drove his dad around in the tank to help fight the bushfires. Picture: Facebook
Joel Rhind drove his dad around in the tank to help fight the bushfires. Picture: Facebook

It was the first time in his firefighting career his own home was affected.

Johns River has borne much of the brunt of the bushfires in the region. Resident Julie Fletcher lost her life as she prepared to flee the fires.

- Jack Morphet

 

 

Workers at the State headquarters for NSW RFS. Picture: Monique Harmer
Workers at the State headquarters for NSW RFS. Picture: Monique Harmer
A spot fire burns north of Glen Innes on Sunday. Picture: Getty/Brook Mitchell
A spot fire burns north of Glen Innes on Sunday. Picture: Getty/Brook Mitchell
Firey Rod Watts gets some relief after battling fires south of Taree. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Firey Rod Watts gets some relief after battling fires south of Taree. Picture: Peter Lorimer
Mr Rhind works through the smoky haze. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Mr Rhind works through the smoky haze. Picture: Nathan Edwards