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‘ARE WE DEAD?’: Captain's terrifying escape from firestorm

The Daily Examiner podcast On The Frontline reveals the first hand experiences of our local RFS volunteers during the Clarence Valley's horrific 2019 bushfire season. CLICK HERE to listen to the first episode.

IT WAS only a matter of seconds before it would start killing them.

Trapped inside a broken down Toyota Landcruiser ute, the two men watched as wave after wave of flames rolled and crashed over the top of them. The extreme heat had melted the engine compartment, starving the vehicle of oxygen.

They were now at the mercy of the Liberation Trail fireball.

Slumped in the passenger seat was Nymboida resident Tony Cilia. His forehead bloodied after a rock smashed through the side window and hit him just above his left eyebrow. He could hear it still sizzling away beneath his feet.

Next to him, Lawrence RFS captain Scott Campbell was frantically trying to get the ute started again.

As the flames consumed the ute's mirrors and front bumper, Tony wondered if his home half a kilometre away had survived this savage heat.

"Are we dead?" Tony asked.

"It's not looking good," Scott eventually replied.

He knew they only had moments before the truck would release its gasses and asphyxiate them both. But Scott was determined not to let them die that evening on Frickers Road.

The engine snorkel of the Lawrence Cat 9 Toyota Landcruiser ute melted during a fire overrun, causing the vehicle to stop as the Liberation Trail firestorm swept over it on November 8, 2019.
The engine snorkel of the Lawrence Cat 9 Toyota Landcruiser ute melted during a fire overrun, causing the vehicle to stop as the Liberation Trail firestorm swept over it on November 8, 2019.


"I just kept hitting the key and hitting the throttle with one of the rocks and eventually it started," Scott said.

"We couldn't get more than 1200 revs. You'd try to get it into second gear and it'd just slow down.

"We couldn't see past the bonnet but I just kept driving, kept thinking about my kids and reassuring him and myself that we would get out of this."

Scott slowly steered them out of the fire path and back to Armidale Road where an ambulance was waiting for them.

Lawrence RFS captain Scott Campbell with Nymboida resident Tony Cilia moments after they survived a deadly fire overrun during the Liberation Trail firestorm on November 8, 2019.
Lawrence RFS captain Scott Campbell with Nymboida resident Tony Cilia moments after they survived a deadly fire overrun during the Liberation Trail firestorm on November 8, 2019.

Now that Tony was safe, incredibly, Scott turned around and headed straight back to the fire ground. He knew there were others who needed help.

"You just couldn't see anything but flames. I assumed the Canoe Centre was gone and the power station was gone because they were just fireballs," he said.

A short time later, four children pulled up in a four-wheel-drive outside Nymboida fire station.

"They were scared and crying and I asked them where their mum and dad were. They said they had stayed to defend the property," Scott said.

"I knew I couldn't get to them so I just had to pray they would be alright."

Scott and Paul Johnson the Nymboida captain ushered the children into the station office. It was the safest place they could be when the fire front would inevitably hit.

"I told them 'you're going to hear some really weird noises; lots of banging and crashing but you're not to leave unless myself or Paul come and get you. We need to know where you are'," Scott said.

"We shut the door and cranked the air conditioner to make the air as cool as possible knowing the power would soon go out."

 


Footage captured by RFS volunteer JR Clout as the Lawrence team left Nymboida:

 

Just after 4am, Scott and the Lawrence crew packed up and drove out of the Liberation Trail fire ground. The crew were keen to have a drink back at the station to help heal the mental and physical bruises sustained from the night. But not Scott.

"I had to go home," he said.

"A phone call wasn't enough. I needed to see [my wife] Wendy. It was the scariest night I've ever had and we knew we'd be back out on that fire ground in a few hours.

"I told her what happened, showed her the truck and she said 'you just go and do what you've got to do. Look after Paul and make sure you come home tonight'."

 

Listen to the latest episodes of On The Frontline below: