Returning the favour: local firies in the thick of it on the South Coast

Hundreds of firies from brigades all over NSW, alongside those from other states and countries, have been deployed in our region since November to bolster local services.

Their presence made all the difference to exhausted locals who'd been toiling day and night on the unprecedented fires raging around the region.

So when the time came to "repay the favour", Mid North Coast Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters jumped at the chance to do just that.

Bega at 3pm on January 4. Photo by Ricky Forbes

Bega at 3pm on January 4. Photo by Ricky Forbes

On New Year's Eve, Strike Force Yankee - made up of an inspector and 16 firefighters from Grafton to Wingham - made the pilgrimage down to the South Coast via the Fire and Rescue Academy in Sydney's Orchard Hills.

For many, their week at ground zero has left an indelible mark on their lives.

"We didn't expect what we saw," Nambucca Heads Deputy Captain Ricky Forbes said.

"All we knew before was what the general public sees on the news, but then you get there and you see the scale of the destruction, and are confronted with the raw emotions of those who don't know whether they have anything left."

Strike Force Yankee 1 was primarily tasked with being a reassuring presence in the region.

That many people came and said 'thank God you're here, we thought we were on our own' - they thought they'd just been abandoned.

Deputy Captain Ricky Forbes

"We went to evacuation centres to reassure them that we were there. And they were relying on us for any information we could give them. But that was hard, because it was unknown territory to us - we didn't have local knowledge."

Nathan Keen is a retained firefighter for Station 371 (Macksville). He said the devastation wrought on the North Coast during November fortified him for his deployment down south: "Having just been through it up here, we knew what people were going through. It helped to prepare us mentally for it".

"But the biggest difference was the scale of it - from Nowra all the way to Bega. I'd never experienced anything of that magnitude before," he said.

The video of the Wyoming Fire and Rescue crew's dash through a wall of fire has gone viral. But for our crew it was all too real, after they discovered their burnt out truck. Photo by Ricky Forbes

The video of the Wyoming Fire and Rescue crew's dash through a wall of fire has gone viral. But for our crew it was all too real, after they discovered their burnt out truck. Photo by Ricky Forbes

The hardest day for the team was Saturday, in Bega, when temperatures were expected to peak and winds to pick up.

A lot of resources were thrown at saving the Bega Cheese Factory which employs thousands of people in the area.

"If people lose their houses, they can rebuild. But it's hard for a community to bounce back if there's no employment," Nathan said.

Ricky said they were also deployed to an area four kilometres from the town centre, where they tried to keep the firefront back by using a road as a containment line - not an easy task when that road is on a hill.

"There were times when I had to rely heavily on my training," he said. "The fire behaviour in these larger fires is erratic - they create their own weather patterns, and they swirl and shift direction continually.

At one point flames were knee-high. The next minute a southerly picked up and flames shot up to the tree-tops. That all happened in a matter of two minutes.

Despite the conditions, they were successful in upholding the line.

"But that was one section, and the fire was so big there were plenty of other possibilities for it to jump."

Ricky said they had no idea about the size of the fire, because there were no eyes in the sky. The smoke was that thick there was no scope for aircraft to do linescans of the area.

The plumes were blotting out the sun in the Bega township, and by 3pm it was as dark as night.

"It was a very eerie feeling for everyone," Nathan said.

Strike Force Yankee 1 moved further south to Eden on Sunday, to wrestle the enormous blaze which had started to chew through the 100,000 tonnes of wood chips at the Eden mill - a business which employs around 500 people in the area.

Throughout their seven-day deployment, the team had traversed the entire South Coast, from Nowra and the Sussex Inlet, through Batemans Bay, Mogo, and down to Bega, Merimbula and Eden.

They were meant to fly out on Sunday evening, but smoke grounded the RAAF plane which was tasked with bringing them home, and they had to wait until Monday to see their families who were anxiously awaiting their return.

On the way through they tagged Station 397 Captain Rob Couchman and Deputy Captain Frank Brownhill from Station 371 who were deployed in Strike Force Yankee 2, which included Deputy Captain Shaun Noble from Dorrigo and Firefighter Sandy McLagan from Urunga.

They'd been on a C-130 Hercules which had twice tried to land and couldn't because even at 500 feet above sea level, the land below was not visible through the acrid orange smoke.

The view from the Hercules cockpit. Photo by the RAAF

The view from the Hercules cockpit. Photo by the RAAF

The plane was diverted to Canberra where they had an overnight stopover before being bussed down to a meeting point, en route to Eden to continue work on the mill inferno.

On Monday, by the time the second Strike Force had started work, people were starting to be allowed back to their properties.

Even though the region no longer felt like a ghost town, Rob said the level of devastation was eye-opening - like what happened in the Nambucca Valley, but on steroids.

"You go into the bush and it's like something out of a dystopian movie," he said.

"We drove through kilometre after kilometre of blackened bush. And when the fire is that hot it takes off a layer of dirt - there were twigs just poking up everywhere out of the carnage.

You realise your littleness in the fury of Mother Nature.

Even though it rained for three solid hours on Monday, it didn't quench the mill fire, which still rages today.

Because of the sheer scale of that blaze, and the heat from it, specialist Fire and Rescue equipment was used, including a hydraulic transfer pump - capable of spraying vast amounts of water with great force - and a TAF20, which is akin to a remotely-driven bobcat with a jet engine and hose in the centre.

Strike Force Yankee 2 was also charged with some damage assessment activities.

One thing which struck all we spoke to was the level of community spirit on display despite the devastation.

"It's not until you leave the Nambucca Valley that you realise it's a virtue that runs Australia-wide - people looking out for one another and the extent of individual generosity," Rob said.

Businesses are suffering - this is meant to be peak tourist season, but caravan parks are desolate. Many have lost everything, and yet they go on to help their neighbour.

"Every time we'd stop at a servo, we'd have four or five people offering to buy us something," Nathan said.

"It was quite humbling how positive people were being."

Of course it was difficult for our firies to accept the generous offers, after all, the main reason they had accepted the mission was to feel like they were paying it forward after so much help had come our way when it was needed.

Despite their eagerness to go, it was a challenging week for them, and it was probably even harder for their loved ones back home.

"My family know what I do, but having seen the reality of what it can be like in all the videos posted on social media, and with people losing their lives, this time was more real. And they were worried for me," Rob said.

"But the firefighters in our Valley - across all services - are very good at their job. We rely on our training, we work hard and we get it done."

Nathan and Ricky's families both struggled more with this mission too.

"I didn't expect to be down there for New Year's," Ricky said.

"And my wife worried a lot more this time because there have been deaths down there and because of what happened to our brigade up here when the tree fell on our truck."

"The kids got a bit emotional a few times while I was away. And it's hard for my wife because she has to be with the kids and try to answer their questions - 'when is Dad coming home?'," Nathan said.

Still, if given the chance to go again, all would put their hand up in an instant.

With the third local Strike Team deployed yesterday, and it only being one month into summer, they could very likely get that chance.

*Ricky and Nathan would like to give a shout out to the RAAF for putting their hand up to transport the crews, making the transfer of firies in and out of affected areas much quicker, and providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the end of a challenging week - the chance to ride in a Hercules.

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This story Returning the favour: local firies in the thick of it on the South Coast first appeared on Guardian News.