NYMBOIDA: ‘From then on, it just turned to mayhem’
FRIDAY, November 8, 2019 was unlike any other, even before a fire storm engulfed Nymboida.
"The 8th of November will stay me probably forever," Lawrence Rural Fire Service Captain Scott Campbell said.
"That particular day was a weather system I don't think we've ever had here before. We had 80km/h plus winds from the west, with 13 per cent humidity, and if there was a spark it ignited and just took off."
Mr Campbell was the divisional commander on the fire ground that day, responsible for coordinating the response of more than 20 fire trucks.
"My shift started at 8 o'clock in the morning at Buccarumbi," he recalled.
"We received advice at about 10 o'clock from the Ulmarra Fire Control Centre to be out of Buccarumbi by 12, it was going to be too dangerous. So we tried to convince people to leave but some didn't want to go.
"Then we went to all the historical buildings and bridges and put a thick layer of foam on everything because it was going to be an ember attack.
"I called the manager when we got to the corner of Glens Creek Rd and Old Glen Innes Rd. I said the fire heading towards Nymboida had gone pyrocumulus - so it was creating its own weather. I asked where he wanted me and he said in front of it.
"The next hour and a half really started to deteriorate. We called for as many trucks from RFS and Fire and Rescue as we could get. I think in the end we had about 25 trucks, not sure of the exact total."
At 3pm Mr Campbell drove solo about 14km up Boundary Creek Rd south of the Nymboida River to get an exact location on the fire.
"I found quite a steep bit of terrain, pulled over and watched the fire come up the side of the mountain, spotting in front of itself a couple of kilometres, and twice the size of full grown gum trees.
"At that time in the afternoon it was like midnight, pitch black, and the fire was starting to spot in front of me, so I sent a picture on my GPS to a friend to tell him where I was, and got out.
"Then it was full time calling trucks to locations we needed to put them. The first house that would be impacted was not too far off the bush and I put the two Lawrence trucks at that.
"Then Grafton City Brigade were at the next house to be impacted."
With strangled voice, Mr Campbell recalls the flames at those locations were "at least 100 metres high".
"It just kept coming and kept spotting. Within minutes we had houses being impacted.
"Thankfully the Lawrence crew excelled themselves again and saved that person's house and kept those people safe, as did the rest of the Clarence Valley crews located along Boundary Creek Rd.
"From then on, it just turned to mayhem."
Crews raced across the river to Glens Creek Rd to find houses already burning.
"Once they were on fire there was nothing we could do," Mr Campbell said.
"We didn't have enough fire trucks for the amount of houses we had being impacted.
"The main front when it came through was just a ball of red. Structures were just igniting under the immense heat."
Mr Campbell dealt with a triple-O call for a person in distress on adjacent Frickers Rd, and then announced over the radio to all crews of both services the only safe place would be the village of Nymboida.
"That's when it got really bad," he said. "For those next couple of hours it's just a blur."
Plenty of distressing moments followed as he helped save lives and crews went from house to house to save as many as they could.
"We had 12 or 14 people turn up in their own cars, they had nowhere safe to go. We couldn't get them out of the fireground, and we had them in the river under the bridge.
"That was pretty horrible. That'll stay with me.
"We had some kids drive to the fire station, whose mum and dad had stayed to look after the farm. They then became the focus for Paul (Johnstone) the Nymboida captain and myself. I said to those kids you're not to leave this building until either Paul or I come and get you, no one else, and there were buildings around them on fire, the power was about to go out.
"It was an eerie, eerie thing.
"My shift that started at eight, I think I got home at five the next morning, we got a few hours sleep and we were back out there again.
"The next morning we were told we had seven people unaccounted for and my job was to go out and try and find those. We focused on that area of Frickers Rd, Glens Creek Rd and Martins Rd.
"I found a gentleman on his farm at Frickers Rd that had fought that fire on his own, and it was just amazing to see him. I thanked him for being alive, really, because I don't know how he survived."
But while it is evident dozens of properties were saved and it was a miracle no one died that night, Mr Campbell visibly struggles to accept the property losses six months later.
"Our goal is life first and then property. We succeeded with the life. We didn't succeed so much with the property.
"In the fires we'd had previously, at Whiteman Creek and Angourie, we'd had some really good successes and not lost many properties, until that one (at Nymboida) when it just turned to s--t and we lost the lot.
"Everybody that was on a fire truck that night is still gutted that we didn't save all those houses. We lost 89 or so.
"We did (save dozens), and that's one thing that I've got to deal with, is to focus on the ones we did save and the people we did get out, and not so much the ones we didn't save.
"I think we have to realise that for some of that fire there was nothing we could do, just try to get people out and keep ourselves alive."
Mr Campbell didn't have an opportunity in the days and weeks following to visit the Nymboida community and reflect on that night, called back to duty into the next major fire zone in the valley, and later assisting on the South Coast.
Then on January 13, still with no end in sight, he took his family on a much-needed holiday to Hawaii. He left enough feed for the cattle for a week and arranged daily delivery of water to his farm.
"It was such a relief to know it was over."
But despite enduring the most relentless fire season in history, rest assured Mr Campbell will be out there alongside his Lawrence RFS family again next season. After all, there was one major factor that kept boosting their morale throughout the relentless summer.
"The most pleasing thing to come out of the last fire season was the support the community showed all the brigades in the Clarence Valley," Mr Campbell said.
"The community embraced all the brigades. They kept giving. They made sure we had food, they made sure we had water, they made sure we had drinks.
"They really did care."