WARZONE: the scene on Rod Zietsch's property after Friday's bushfire,
WARZONE: the scene on Rod Zietsch's property after Friday's bushfire, Tim Howard

NIGHTMARE: Nymboida fights back after hells pays a visit

THERE were no handshakes.

Only hugs cut it as the shattered residents of Nymboida do the rounds to count the costs of Friday night's catastrophic fire that swept through the area.

The head count the locals have come up with is 45 or more houses destroyed in the few hours when hell paid a visit to their village.

The tales of heroism, loss, sacifice and luck of all kinds could have come straight from the reels of a disaster movie.

BOXER UP FOR THE FIGHT

AT 3am on Saturday morning former Australian boxing champion John Cooper and partner Hilde Heytens were in bed in their caravan on their property next to the Nymboida River, trying to get some sleep after 12 hours filled with enough adventures for a lifetime.

"It was sort of surreal to be lying there in bed at 3am when just a few hours earlier you thought everything you owned was gone," Mr Cooper said.

The couple had returned in the afternoon after getting supplies in Grafton and realised something bad was brewing.

"By 4.30pm the sky had gone dark," Mr Cooper said. "It was just like night with this red glow in the sky.

"About 6.30pm the glow was coming from behind the hill and I thought it was the setting sun breaking through the smoke.

"For a couple of minutes I had hope that things were getting better, then I saw the flames shooting up.

"The fire came over the hill and down toward us. The speed was incredible."

Mr Cooper and Ms Heytens began scrambling to get away from the firefront.

On top of the list of things to save was the dingoes which Mr Cooper has been trapping and training as pets for the past decade.

 

Happier days with John Cooper on his Nymboida property with his dingo clan.
Happier days with John Cooper on his Nymboida property with his dingo clan. Adam Hourigan

"I got two into the car, but I had to let some out of their cages that shouldn't have been and a fight started," he said.

Somehow they were able to wrangle the fighting dingoes to safety and away from the fire front.

"We watched as the fire went straight over the top of our camp," Ms Heytens said. "We thought everything was gone."

OUT OF THE FLOOD INTO THE FIRE

ROD and Jenny Zietsch have already brought their property, between Armidale and Glens Creek roads, back from a disaster once in the past six years.

During the 2013 February floods one of the bulkheads holding pipes taking water from the Nymboida River to the hydro-electric power station failed, sending a wall of water through their property, missing their house by a mere 10 metres.

Their luck held on Friday, with a mix of good planning and an amazing sacrifice from nearby local Darren Freelander, who made the decision to send his family into Grafton and help Mr Zietsch defend his property.

He learned on Saturday his house had burnt to the ground, but was philosophical about it.

"If I had stayed, I wouldn't be here now," he said. He said a neighbour across the road had tried to defend his house, but had to watch from the middle of his dam as it burnt down.

The sprinklers and hoses the Zietschs placed around their home drenching the house and surrounding rock gardens worked a treat keeping the flames at bay.

 

SAVED: Darren Freelander talks to Jenny Zietsch outside the shed on the Zietsch's property he and Rod Zietsch saved from the fire.
SAVED: Darren Freelander talks to Jenny Zietsch outside the shed on the Zietsch's property he and Rod Zietsch saved from the fire. Tim Howard

But the shed, where Mr Zietsch worked as an artisan cabinet maker, which also doubled as the Thursday night rendez-vous and home-brewery for many locals, needed to be defended.

Mr Zietsch said the scene was "apocalyptic" from around 4.30pm with the only light a red glow from the fire.

"After 6pm embers started landing everywhere," he said. "The fire was coming at amazing speed.

"A patch of forest across the road exploded like a bomb. Whole trees burst into flame at once."

 

The bush fire near Nymboida about to cross Glens Creek Rd.
The bush fire near Nymboida about to cross Glens Creek Rd. Contributed

He raced to start a firefighter pump he had installed next to the creek.

"We had been using it to pump water over everything and I had turned it off to give it a rest," he said.

"It just wouldn't start. It kicked over, coughed and stopped. Then nothing."

At the hot end Mr Freelander was facing a wall of fire, expecting the hose to spring to life.

"It gave a spurt, then a dribble, then that was it," he said.

But they had a back up.

"We had a $100 pressure pump from Bunnings hooked up to the water tanks, which luckily were about three quarters full from that storm we had three weeks ago," Mr Zietsch said.

"When the power went out, we had the generator going.

"That little pump and the genny never missed a beat. It fed two hoses for about three hours."

Mr Freelander said in these situations you needed to have at least three options in case others failed.

He said the fire burnt down a gully on the northern side of the shed at a terrifying speed.

"Then it circled around and burnt up the gully on the other side."

 

STILL BURNING: Flames still coming from a burning log the day after the fire front passed through Nymboida.
STILL BURNING: Flames still coming from a burning log the day after the fire front passed through Nymboida. Tim Howard

The noise of it was incredible. It was like 10 freight trains roaring past and it just went on and on."

"I couldn't have done it without Daz," Mr Zietsch said. "We looked after a side of the shed each, putting out spot fires as they came up.

 

SANCTUARY: After saving the shed from the flames Darren Freelander, left, and Rod Zietsch, centre talk with John Cooper, obscured and Hilde Heytens and Jenny Zietsch, right, about their experiences.
SANCTUARY: After saving the shed from the flames Darren Freelander, left, and Rod Zietsch, centre talk with John Cooper, obscured and Hilde Heytens and Jenny Zietsch, right, about their experiences. Tim Howard

"The fire got underneath where we have the toilet. Daz was hanging over the balcony, using a hand held pump to get water onto the fire."

NO TIME FOR PANIC

THROUGHOUT Saturday neighbours dropped in to the Zietschs' shed to check on neighbours and share their experiences.

Local builder Phil Dean, who had defended his home by himself, had a brush with disaster.

"I had to turn off the pump I was using to refuel it," he said. "When I went to pull the rope to restart it, I saw the cord had burnt off.

"I had to grab the socket set, take the starter assembly off, re-thread a piece of cord and put it back together.

"I pulled the starter, the pump started and I was back in business."



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