‘IT’LL BURN AGAIN’: Fire captain reflects on horror season
IT IS 12 months almost to the day since the Gulmarrad Rural Fire Service started receiving calls for grass fires in the area - calls that continued through to some of the worst bushfires seen in our history.
Looking back, Gulmarrad fire captain Andrew Paull spoke with pride about the work his and other brigades did during that time, with tales of heroism, sacrifice and courage a daily occurrence.
And he said they were ready to answer the call again.
"It will burn again," Mr Paull said. "I think there's an element out there who think everything's burned so we'll be right because it's not as dry.
"We had a lot of fires through the valley, and around 50 per cent of it burned. So there's another 50 per cent out there."
The season started in mid-July with call outs for the brigade to grass fires at Ulmarra. But soon after, a fire in Shark Creek that wouldn't go out proved the first major flash point.
"That Shark Creek fire, it was probably the big one for us," he said.
"When it jumped out and came through Taloumbi, there were a few older members of the brigade that had seen a fire go through there before, and they shook their heads and said 'I know what's going to happen here'."
With the coastal land dry from a season of drought, Mr Paull said the fire burned "like petrol", with the fire always needing attention as it raced through Taloumbi and at the back of Gulmarrad.
Mr Paull was injured at the time, and could only co-ordinate, with stories of the fight more akin to a movie scene.
"They had the trucks out, and it was dark and moving fast. It was mayhem," he said.
"One of our young fellas had a few trucks under his control, and he did a great job in trying conditions.
"My crew was out there, and I've worked on jobs very similar, and you just go from house to house - you've got very little time to look at a map and do the planning.
"You were just saying 'it's this truck, we're going to this address', and do what you can do … and then you go to the next house and try to stay ahead of it."
Mr Paull said the significant difference for this fire was, because of the dry conditions, firefighters were unable to get relief from colder night conditions.
"It was a running fire, and because everything was so dry, the fires kept going through the night," he said.
"Usually you could park a fire, leave it in a gully. But you couldn't do that then - they went all through the night.
"A little bit of wind in the night, and it's basically day firefighting but in the dark."
Mr Paull said they managed to not lose any home structures, with incredible stories coming back with each shift.
"There was one house which was up off the ground, and there was leaf litter underneath," he said.
"The leaf litter burned, the plastic downpipes melted, flyscreens melted, but everything else was saved.
"I can't imagine what those crew members went through."
Months later, Mr Paull rejoined his brigade and others to fight the deadly Nymboida fires, speaking with pride of their work.
"Oh yeah, I'm proud," he said. "We had a crew out there at Nymboida when it went through there, and I was on a crew the next day, and the stories that were coming out were unbelievable.
"One of our members, she was a crew leader through the night and ended up looking after a burns victim through the next day and helping them with the ambulance.
"The stories are just … I can't explain," he said with his voice trailing off.
Mr Paul estimated a total of eight months' work in a fire season that had he and many others from the region also called upon to fight fires on the South Coast.
"When that rain came through (in the New Year), it was like - 'oh man, I'm going home, and I'm going to crack a beer'."
And while many would question what led his crews to drop their lives in support of others, Mr Paull was matter-of-fact.
"There is real pride in what we do, and I suppose Gulmarrad is just one brigade, but they're all the same, whether it's a little brigade out in the sticks or a bigger one like us.
"By nature, we've all got the same mindset, and we all do the same things.
"I can't speak for everyone, and we've got our reasons, but it's the same as if you see someone fall over in the street - you don't walk by, you stop and help him up.
"The RFS is famous for pushing you to your limits. You come in expecting to do this, but it doesn't stop there, and for some of us it's a way of life.
"It's an adventure, but it's never to the point of being irresponsible. Out on the job, everything changes - at work, you do your job.
"But essentially, we get a page, we get in the truck, and we go."
Mr Paull praised the generosity of the community who had given generously to the brigades over the year and said it eased the pressure on having to fundraise throughout the year.
"It's time we can spend with our families," he said. "Having said that, community engagement is vitally important and we'll be still out doing stuff.
"Gulmarrad Rural Fire Brigade is very much an example of the RFS as a whole, but we're not unique.
"We're a strong brigade because of the area we're in, but we're all the same."