Local firefighter stuck in firestorm

By Rhys Williams

A local firefighter has recounted the terrifying moment his crew were caught in a firestorm while battling an inferno in the Riverina.

Fire and Rescue NSW Station 268 Corowa captain Lindsay Bush was fighting a cataclysmic blaze between Tumut and Talbingo when darkness draped over the sky and the crew became caught in a firestorm.

“All of sudden it went completely pitch-black dark at 4pm in the afternoon. We couldn’t even see in front of the truck it was that dark,” he told The Free Press.

“We parked up in a clear area on the road and then got the crew protection system going – which is like a sprinkler system that goes over the crew cab – and then held blinds and blankets over all the windows while it passed over us.

 “Once it passed, we stepped out of the truck on the passenger side and we were almost blown off our feet, the winds were so strong. We had to hold onto the rails,” he added.

“The whole thing was pretty unbelievable.”

Lindsay said the crew wasn’t unnerved by the firestorm and as soon it was safe to do so, they continued towards the Talbingo township and extinguished houses, sheds and a service station.

Station 268 Corowa have had personnel deployed to fire affected areas in NSW since September 20 and it hasn’t stopped as fires have only seemed to spread since.

The team of 17 Corowa firefighters has assisted with fires in Glen Innes, Armidale, Lismore, Ulladulla, Batemans Bay, Nowra, Talbingo, Tumut, Tumaraumba and others over a three-and-a-half-month period.

The Corowa team currently has a tanker and crew still deployed in Tumbarumba with personnel constantly changing over at different intervals as part of an ongoing commitment to assist the fires with crews and their 268 tanker.

Lindsay laments that this year’s fire season could extend well into the autumn months if there isn’t a serious shift in the weather.

“I think there’s a very likely chance we see the bushfire season push into March, April and May,” he said.

 “Until we get decent rain, I can’t really see an end in sight.”

Rutherglen Fire Brigade captain David Hawkey said that this is certainly the most catastrophic fire season he’s ever experienced.

“This has absolutely been the worst fire season I’ve experienced in my time,” he told The Free Press.

“We’ve been going since November 10 with deployments to northern NSW, Batemans Bay and other parts of NSW before returning to assist with the fires happening in our region.”

On December 30 the Rutherglen Group, which consists of brigades from nine areas located in the local area, were called as part of a strike team to assist with the fires in the Upper Murray.

The Upper Murray fire - also known as the Green Valley or Walwa fire - was ignited by lightning in steep forested terrain in NSW on December 29.
The current fire area is estimated to be more than 300,000 hectares and remains a dynamic fire situation.

“We got up there and were involved in asset protection and have been involved ever since, crewing five tankers to assist,” captain Hawkey said.

“Now we’re helping more with control strategies, but on the bad days we’ll fall back into asset protection.

At the pinnacle of the fire disaster in the Upper Murray, the Rutherglen Fire Brigade had all 20 of its operative personnel deployed on a rotating roster as part of a Rutherglen Group strike team consisting of five trucks, a command vehicle and 22 firefighters. 

The team has simultaneously been committed to protecting their own patch, attending to 16 minor fire incidents in the local area this January.

Throughout the calamitous fire conditions, Captain Hawkey said he was heartened by the outstanding community support.

“The community support has been overwhelming. We’ve been humbled by their support.

“We’ve now received so many physical donations of items like food that we’ve had to ask people to direct their contributions to the relief as we are well catered for by the CFA when we are deployed 

“I’d also like to thank all operative and non-operative personnel. We’ve had some great help from our local command facility members which has been fantastic.

“We’ve also had an open line of communication with our counterparts across the border in our planning phase so we can both understand what sort of resources each of us has got.”