The Gospers Mountain Fire is the biggest bushfire in Australian history and among the ten largest the world has experienced. Ignited by a lightning strike on a tree within the Wollemi National Park on the night of 26th October 2019, which burnt for 79 days before torrential rains extinguished it on 10th February 2020.
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The blaze reached its peak on Saturday 21st December 2019, a day my Fire and Rescue NSW crew and I found ourselves on duty. This is my account of an eventful day, not easily forgotten.
The morning starts just like any other shift during the drudgerous mire of the recent bushfire season. I arrive at Willoughby Fire Station just before 7am, greet the off going shift and my crew members and I make a cup of tea. The Southern Highlands had erupted during the preceding days and I expect that we will be deployed there.
We talk among ourselves as we quickly consume some breakfast. As we eat, we hear the news in the background with the presenter talking about fears of intensification of fire activity in the Blue Mountains.
Chris James, our Station Officer (SO), Senior Firefighter Genevieve Delves and myself have been working together on and off since 2014. Firefighter Yanda Morison, our newest crew member, has been with us for around six months and had not experienced a major bushfire yet.
Right on 8am the station bells ring and we receive the print-out informing us that we are to head to Picton on the outskirts of the Southern Highlands.
An Australian Army Blackhawk helicopter hovers above, a crew member giving us a thumbs up. They are there to evacuate us should it turn very nasty.
We are hastily travelling down the Hume Highway when we are contacted by our Sydney Communications Centre informing us that that we are to be re-directed to Katoomba Bush Fire Control Centre.
As we ascend the highway up the mountains, we start to see a lot of smoke and decreasing lack of visibility around us. Upon our arrival at Katoomba Bush Fire Control Centre the smoke clears. The control centre itself is a hive of activity and as we enter, one Rural Fire Service (RFS) member tells us that we are likely to be in for a busy afternoon whilst another tells us that the ground is so dry in the mountains that you would need to dig to a depth of three feet to find any moisture in the soil whatsoever.
We find a Fire and Rescue NSW Officer who informs us that we are to be one of four trucks forming Strike Team Alpha and that we are heading to Springwood Fire and Rescue Station to meet the rest of the team. We have a quick bite to eat and meet our Strike Team Leader, Inspector Jim Murphy. He briefs us on the afternoons expected conditions and instruction on how we are to operate safely. He expects the fire activity to pick up during the afternoon with the predicted strong increase in wind speed and for the fire to burn over us at some stage. He tells us the fire will be noisy and to expect a huge increase in temperature until it passes over us. Some of us who have experienced it before knew exactly what to expect.
Soon after we are tasked to head to Mt Victoria where we are told that the fire is impacting on the Clarence area, with westerly winds driving it towards Dargan. Dargan, we discover is one of those small places you don't know exists until it appears in the news. It is a collection of houses straddling two small roads, long term residents and week-enders, nestled tightly among the bush, idyllic most of the time but not in the conditions confronting us on that day.
We are instructed to protect houses where possible and assist any residents in evacuating. We round the first corner and I spot a house tucked deeply into the bush with a chain securing its gate and I get a feeling. We pull over and I tell Chris we need to have a look at that house.
Yanda and I open the gate and move down the driveway, I push open the front door, which is unlocked, and search through the house, yelling that we are Fire and Rescue. There is no response. Yanda has looked around the sides and rear of the house and found no one. We decide to go back to the truck. Just as we are departing an elderly gentleman emerges from a small door at the side of the house. We ask him what he is doing and explain that the fire has come to within a few hundred meters to the north of his house and that he really needs to evacuate now. He says no, that he and his wife are taking refuge under the house and intend to ride it out.
Within the hour it becomes clear that this decision was the right one.
We call Chris on the radio and he comes down the driveway to talk to the gentleman. The wife emerges and Chris tells them that they are in imminent danger and should leave. His words ring true with the woman and she asks if we can assist them with their dogs, which need to go into their cars. Chris agrees and within minutes we have helped them with their two large dogs and they leave the area for shelter. Within the hour it becomes clear that this decision was the right one.
We continue down the road to check that residents have evacuated. A few hundred metres down the road we spot a large house with a shed and two men dressed in black standing with hoses at the ready on the roof of the house. Chris calls the truck to a halt and walks over to talk to the two men. The men identify themselves as Leam and Jack. Leam is the homeowner and is prepared to fight the fire having set up a portable pump to run off his two water storage tanks. He has additionally fabricated a heat shield to protect the pump, which sits over it. Jack is Leam's mate from a few houses down the road. Leam has evacuated his wife and children and now awaits the expected fire with Jack.
We travel to the end of the road, making sure that residents have evacuated and that we have access to water supplies. Once that has been completed Chris has a bit of a team talk to us. We decide that as we are there to protect property and Leam and Jack are well prepared to defend Leam's house, we should assist them.
We arrive back at Leam's house and reverse our truck as well as Riverstone's into its twin driveways. Our golden rule is to defend property as long as we can safely, whilst ensuring at all times that we have an escape route should the worst happen. An Australian Army Blackhawk helicopter hovers above us, a crew member giving us the thumbs up sign. They are there to evacuate us should it turn very nasty.
The wind has now died down and I feel like the worst of the fire may have passed us. We then receive a message from our Strike Team Leader that the westerly wind is picking up and the fire should approach us in a very short time. I talk to Yanda, who has the other hose, and check that she is confident in herself, this being her first bushfire. We then sit on a small stone wall at the edge of Leam's garden and look to the west for signs of fire. Leam and Jack deal with the tension by cracking open another two beers. The full esky they keep nearby ensures that they do not dehydrate - we all have a laugh about that.
It is difficult to put water on any one particular area as the fire moves through us.
Around fifteen minutes later I notice a dark grey smoke cloud rising, just behind a small ridge several hundred meters away. Yanda and I get ready as the fire becomes visible and the wind picks up strongly. Within a minute the wind strength and noise both start driving towards us ferociously as the fire comes though the tops of the gumtrees, roaring deafeningly as it approaches. I crack open the hose and start laying some water down on the roof of Liam's shed and then up into the trees. The ambient temperature increases rapidly and suddenly the fire is coming over the top of us at a height of twenty to thirty metres. Fires break out on the ground, in the trees and under a carport attached to the shed. It is difficult to put water on any one particular area as the fire moves through us.
I feel a hand pull on my shoulder and turn around to see Jay, (another member of the strike team) who tells me we need to pull back. I have lost sight of Yanda in all the sudden activity, but know that she is with Chris. Out of the corner of my eye as we retreat back up the driveway I see Liam disappear into his house. We keep retreating, putting water on what fire we can as we near the back of the truck. Gen puts a call over the radio that we now have minimal water and that it is time to go.
We are sure that the fire has gone up the side of Liam's house, skirting the area we were defending. We start the truck and quickly head to the end of the road, which is safe from fire and provides us with water to top up our tanks. We pass numerous houses burning, many of which have collapsed. It is difficult to explain how quickly the fire destroyed the houses and scorched the trees, foliage and earth to dirty black and grey colours.
Once our water tanks are replenished, we move back up the road and extinguish what fires we can and then refill our water tank once more. As we start discussing the destruction we have just witnessed, almost simultaneously our thoughts grow into anxiety as we consider the whereabouts of Liam and Jack. It is an anxious drive as we move up the road towards the house and pull up outside. There is no sign of the two men as Chris moves to the back of the house. Fears turn into elation within a few seconds as he emerges with two ashen covered figures who have saved their house from destruction.
It is a funny job in a way. You spend many years training and preparing yourself for a day like that and only hope that your actions make a difference when it really matters.
Eventually we are directed to move down to Lithgow for refreshment before making the long drive back to Willoughby around 9.30pm. As we depart from Dargan we pass the house where the elderly couple lived. It has been consumed by the fire and has collapsed upon itself. Nothing green remains, everything has been burnt.
We have a few days off now to absorb the events of that Saturday. For me it is not a normal Christmas. It takes me several days to take in those events and I am consciously very quiet for most of those days, it feels like shock.
When we do return back several days later we talk a lot about our experiences. Chris confides in us that he had a quiet moment during the days off, just releasing those emotions. Gen and Yanda likewise realise the importance of that day. Gen had been in contact with Leam and let us know that he was doing well, but was dealing with the close call on his property and the loss of numerous neighbours' houses. We never found out what happened to the elderly couple. We could only imagine how sad a time it would have been for them to lose everything.
We still talk about the events of 21st December, 2019. It is a funny job in a way. You spend many years training and preparing yourself for a day like that and only hope that your actions make a difference when it really matters.
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