A Young Volunteer Firefighter Talks About The Fight To Save Her Town

A Young Volunteer Firefighter Talks About The Fight To Save Her Town

As the world welcomed in 2020, small communities on the southeast coast of Australia were engulfed by bushfires.

Addie Hall / BuzzFeed

Video taken in Batemans Bay, facing toward towns in the south.

A few days previously, I had been holidaying on the South Coast of NSW in Narooma — my home town and soon-to-be evacuation centre for these communities.

I couldn’t believe that the view from the balcony at home, had gone from this…

…to this. All in the space of a few days.

Ruth Ellis / BuzzFeed

My home town had turned dark with smoke from the fires in the area. My social media feed was suddenly full of stories and posts from old friends and community members getting ready to risk their lives by defending their homes. At the time of writing, some still are.

A friend of mine, Siobhan Threlfall, comes from the South Coast regional community of Nerrigundah.

NSW Rural Fire Service / Via rfs.nsw.gov.au

It’s remote and surrounded by bush, and that means my friend and her family are all volunteer firefighters. It comes with the territory. Like me, she was back home holidaying over Christmas.

This is her story of the New Year’s Eve fires in Nerrigundah:

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

“I woke up on the morning of 31 December around 2.30 with my mum screaming my name. The sky behind my parents’ house was just a huge red glow, with the roar of the fire echoing through the valley. My mum and our two dogs evacuated to town. My dad, the Nerrigundah volunteer fire captain, my brother Caden, my sister Skye and I, all stayed to defend the town.

Members were already reaching the fire shed by the time Caden and dad got there. Immediately, they got into the truck to [go and] investigate the fire, while Skye and I called everyone in the valley.

Dad predicted that the fire wouldn’t hit us properly for another two hours. While we waited, we put on sprinkler systems, got our water pumps ready and removed the gas bottles from the house — all while the radio spewed distress calls. There were calls from people who were in danger, calls from crew that needed urgent assistance, as well as call-outs for ambulances who were now needed everywhere on the South Coast.

My brother radioed us. He and another volunteer firefighter, Ashley, had gone to check on members of the community, but with the amount of downed trees and the fire headed straight their way, they couldn’t reach two of our brigade members. They were going to be stuck in their house in the path of the fire. I didn’t know if I would see them again.”

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

“When the power went out, we had to use our firefighting pump to keep our sprinkler system activated. At first, we started to lose water pressure, but when the first embers ignited a house across from us and the trucks raced over there, the pump stopped completely.

I raced down to get it restarted, yelling to my sister to get the hoses on the house because embers had started to fly past me, all the while thinking: ‘No. Don’t stop working now. Not in this moment’.

Two minutes after I had gone to the pump, Skye started screaming my name. When I looked down at the valley everything was on fire. Three homes were already gone and the flames were about to reach the shed — our only place of refuge if we were overwhelmed by the fire.”

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

“We pulled up to the shed just as flames started to hit. The wind was a tornado filled with sparking embers whipping around us. The air itself was on fire and the shed, our oasis, was surrounded by flames.

It was too late to do anything. Everyone ran into the shed, but despite the sprinkler system, it was completely filled with smoke. The shutter doors buckled and embers started flying into the shed. We pressed up against the inside of the doors with our bodies, desperately trying to get them to shut again. We honestly thought we were all going to die.”

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

“Once the intensity died down and we were able to leave the shed, we drove back down to our house so we could attempt to save it. From a distance, I saw flames in our windows and our own shed and garden burnt down to nothing. I told dad it was gone, but I was wrong.

I was only seeing the reflection of the fires in the window and the flames were still on the outside. We jumped out with hoses to put the flames out only to remember that we were now out of water.

I watched my memories burn.

Caden came down the hill in an additional truck with Simon and John —Nerrigundah residents and volunteer firefighters. We now had hoses to put out the fire and Caden got our own pump restarted. He ran into the house to put out the flames, but came back almost immediately, throwing up from the smoke.

I ran in through the laundry, ripping and throwing out all of our burning jackets. I couldn’t breathe or see and mucus was pouring out of my face. Caden, Simon and John moved onto another burning house while dad and I stayed to try and save our own.”

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

“After the danger had passed, Caden and Charlie — yet another volunteer— spent the next few hours cutting through trees to reach our friends and neighbours. Other members of the community came back to the fire shed. They all had their own story of how they survived the inferno: Some had hid in the river for hours with burns up their legs while others had battled the flames by standing on the roofs of their houses.”

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed / Via Facebook: video.php

“The next day, Caden, dad and three other volunteers worked through the night in order to cut through downed trees to Belowra — a village nearby — so that they could get those residents out of the town.”

Update: The Threlfall family have returned home to Nerrigundah. While their house survived, not many others did. They’re still helping with the bushfire relief, fighting in the surrounding areas.

This was only one story emerging from the South Coast fires. There are dozens more on my newsfeed. Stories of heroism and community and friends pulling together.

Bob Aston / BuzzFeed

For example, my father told me that, as he was cooking the Rotary BBQ for the thousands of evacuees flooding into Narooma, that “People came from everywhere to help. Locals, visitors and travellers, local businesses large and small provided food and much other needed supplies. When the chips are down, it goes to show, we can be very proud of how we come together to help out.”

Donate to the NSW Rural Fire Service here, WIRES here, the RSPCA here and the Australian Red Cross here. Or, if you would like to contribute in a different way, check out this post that lists the small ways you can help. You can even buy products from businesses in these fire affected areas.

Siobhan Threlfall / BuzzFeed

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