Fires on the NSW South Coast (Part 2)

The day of the disaster

(Posted on location)

On Friday, I posted about my feeling of foreboding as we approached a weather day that would bring worst-case scenario conditions to the south coast of NSW. It was going to be hot, windy and with low humidity. I hoped that somehow, the (actually) reliable Bureau of Meteorology had got it wrong.

They didn’t.

The temperature on the fire ground near where I am stationed varied from 34 to 44C. The prediction for wind speed and humidity were on course. Penrith near Sydney, would, by the end of the day, record the highest temperature in the WORLD clocking up 48.9C (120F)

The mood in the EMC started off tense but confident. Calls came in at a steady but manageable pace. The Comms team had time to make coffee or grab a comfort break without interrupting the necessary logging of team movements. At 11:30 the pace began to speed up. The 000 call Centre began diverting two or three messages at a time, then four.

By 12:30 we were not keeping up with the computer logging system and it was causing frustration when it “refreshed” at frequent and more inconvenient intervals. By 13:15 it was totally unmanageable. Thank goodness for pen and paper!

The EMC staff and volunteers hummed with a beam of activity focused on the goal of getting resources to the spot fires that were beginning to break out. The pattern of multiple calls for nearby locations broken suddenly by a call from a more distant area. Flying embers were doing their evil work. Flame heights were getting higher and higher. Twenty-metre sheets eclipsed by 40 to 50 m monsters.

Then the dreaded message

RED RED RED

Significant fire impacting Bendalong Road

Get the (water) bombers NOW!

Close the road!

The room became silent, people clustered around the comms station. The wheels ticked and the orders came

Get everything up! 

People in their colourful tabards went about their duties calmly but quickly. No-one ran, no one panicked. They were trained for this. The police organised the road closures, the aviation ops team launched all available assets and fire crews were diverted from other positions. If the fire travelled too far from Bendalong Road, the township of Tabourie Lake would be no more.

Then a few minutes later

EMERGENCY EMERGENCY 

No other radio call can stop a room dead in its tracks as quickly as these words do.

A crew was about to be overrun by fire.

Shelter in place

Activate your fire plans

It was unclear exactly what “place” they were in. As tense seconds passed there was radio silence. Nothing. It was still. The crowd around the radio was leaning in, wishing they could squeeze themselves into the microphone and pull the trapped crew through the airwaves. We waited, hoping to hear something from that microphone. Seconds more ticked past.

The ops manager hailed the crew. Nothing. He hailed again.

A breath sucking pause later and the crew’s Captain responded. 

All safe, the fire had passed.

The collective gasp and back-slapping continued for a split-second and then everyone returned to the duties of controlling a huge fire hunting down a town.

Support was dispatched to the crew and apart from a minor burn, there were no physical injuries. By the end of the day, two more firefighters and three civilians had been taken to hospital and two appliances damaged. But, by nightfall no homes had fallen, A few outbuildings here or there, but no-one’s house. (As far as I know)

The relentless heat of the day was squashed by the southerly. A southerly can be a blessing for those hoping to escape the heat of the day but an ill omen for firefighters. The gusty southerly winds that come with the cool front bring thunderstorms. In the microclimate that develops around a firestorm, these thunderstorms form pyrocumulonimbus clouds which rumble like a regular thunderstorm but suck up the embers and dump them down kilometres ahead of the main fire front but bring no rain.

The southerly did come and it did stir up the fire but my shift had ended so I don’t know what went on in the EMC. I don’t know what happened to the crews I had been tracking during the day. I hoped they had got home for a sleep. I hoped no more had been hurt.

I walked around town with my camera in the quiet, eerie dim light as the southerly pushed smoke into the town and turned it into a pool of orange dread. I wandered for a few hours breathing in the smoke, thinking I shouldn’t, but fascinated by those clouds.

Looking from the showground north of Nowra

I couldn’t sleep. I worried about the people whose fates I had not been able to follow. The ones who had gone to hospital and who were later (unbeknown to me) released to go home to their families. I worried about the team who had been bathed in fire. They might not be hurt but how would their dreams be tonight? Could they rest? Did they have someone to hold them and listen to their story?

 

The lookout at the showground was crowded

As I logged on for my shift this morning, I learned that the two fire fronts north of Nowra had merged and that the southern fire near Tabourie was still active. Crews would need to be in two places at once again.

Today was my last day at the EMC. I’ll drive home tomorrow. The weather was much more benign today. Cool and windless. Overcast with real clouds and not just smoke, the humidity rising to 100%. The fire continued, but today it was not as ferocious. At least it was not hunting towns. It had other assets in sight. We had a full comms team and I probably didn’t need to be there. I’m glad I was. The easier pace allowed me to calm down and get things into a better perspective. Bad things happen in big fires. People do die and one person did yesterday in a fire not too far from “ours”. But today no-one died, a little bit of rain fell and the firefighters got to have a rest. The fire will burn for many more days and it will probably flare up to be another raging dragon unless significant rain falls.  I will watch it from afar as others take my place to relieve the local crews who become more and more exhausted.

As I left the Centre, I had to wait as a stream of volunteers from Queensland’s Rural Fire Service unloaded from a bus. Their big boots dragging a little and their full kit bags wheeling along behind them. They were weary but energetic. They’ll get a good sleep tonight and will be ready to assist in the morning. I guess I am tired but that stream of yellow and green,  brought a tear to my eye. They’re a long way from home but I bet like me, they felt privileged to be able to help.

 

Fires on the NSW South Coast

For the last three days I have been working in the Emergency Management Centre in Nowra ( 2 hours south of Sydney) as a communications officer. I’ll be there for another three days. As a volunteer, I don’t expect or want to be paid. I volunteer for two reasons, to help others and help myself. Volunteering is one of the sure fire ways to boost your own mental health and wellbeing. I’m no hero or saint, I’m just practical!

The twelve hour shifts have me taking messages from 000 (Australia’s equivalent to 911) and delivering them to the operations officer who then decides which fire teams will be dispatched and what other resources will be required.

As well as 000 calls, we meticulously log the movements of the various appliances as they move from place to place.

The voice in the head set declares:

Fire Com Fire Com this is {insert unit name here}

Go ahead {Unit name}

We are proceeding from the X Station to the Y Staging Area at {location}

Received {Unit name} Fire Coms Clear at 16:08

The words are precise to ensure the meaning is clear. The word “proceeding” is important. Emergency vehicles “proceed” when they are just driving normally. They must get permission to “respond” under lights and sirens.

The transaction is then logged both in a written book and in a computer-based time log. The radio messages are recorded. The time log is then available to the State Operations team in close to real time, so they can oversee the various operations around the State. If we have not heard from someone for a while, we will do a “welfare check”.

The written log has numbered pages, each log book must be kept. This means that if there is an enquiry after the event, the log entries can be checked to help determine what happened and why. It’s a heavy responsibility.

We also answer really important questions for crews like where they can get lunch!

The two big rooms that house the EMC are awash with high-vis uniforms and colourful tabards. Tabards are like waistcoats with the role of the person in large letters emblazoned on the back and front. The Incident Controller, Operations Manager, Public Liaison Officer, Animal Welfare. Catering, of course. There is a tabard for every role. It makes it easy for anyone to know who is who because not everyone who is here is from the Rural Fire Service even if this is their “party”.

There are clusters of people from the Police, Fire and Rescue NSW, Rural Fire Service, Ambulance, Endeavour Energy workers ( to cut and restore the power to burnt power poles) National Parks and Wildlife, the Defence Force and more like me, in Orange from the State Emergency Service. We all work side by side to put the jigsaw together without losing any pieces.

For the past three days, the weather has been kind and the mood in the EMC was calm but wary. The relatively low temperatures and light winds have meant that crews have been able to do some back burning and to create containment lines. Holiday makers have been able to get home and the long lines of traffic seen yesterday have depleted, giving the police less grief. There has been a steady stream of lovely food brought in by towns’ people supporting our efforts.

But today is the day before D-day. Disaster day. The forecast is grim. 44C (111F) and low humidity. The light northerly winds of the morning will be whirled around by a strong southerly in the afternoon. It is likely to be another day like New Year’s Eve when more than 100 homes were destroyed, whole towns razed and people died.

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I hope the Bureau of Meteorology has it wrong. The fire crews and all the rest of us will be doing our best but there are only so many fire trucks and only so many people who can do the work. Please follow their instructions. Please don’t go through road blocks. Please don’t light fires. Please make your decision to stay or leave early and please take care, not risks.

First responder.

A traffic accident on Harris Island, Scotland.

June 2019

I am still not sure what made me look up at that particular moment. I guess something must have caught my eye. With more than 40 years driving experience under your seat belt,  you remain alert even when you are admiring the broad, rugged landscapes of Harris Island.

But look up, I did. Just in time to see the large white SUV, which was the second car behind me, pull out onto the other side of the road to overtake. At the same moment, the car directly behind me also pulled out and accelerated rapidly.

“No! Mate! No!” I shouted at the silver car “Don’t!”

The small silver car slammed into the side of the larger, white car, and became airborne sailing over the top of the white car, rolling over and over again. It dropped into a gully next to the road. I didn’t see it hit the ground, but when I did see where it had come to rest, I could tell from the dug-up field, that it had skated on its roof across the rock-studded grass. The white car spun on its wheels and ended up facing the right way in the correct lane, front tyre punctured, passenger side caved in, airbags fully deployed

It all happened in a fraction of a second, but as people say, it seemed as if it was in slow motion. Every nanosecond etched on my mind.

I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my phone from the charger. I opened the boot of the car and fished out my first kit. The one I had brought in case I sprained my ankle while hiking.

As I jabbed 999 on the phone’s keyboard,  I thought to myself “I don’t have enough Bandaids for this accident. Those people are dead for sure.”

“Ambulance, Fire or Police?” the calm female voice said at the other end of the line.

“Ambulance and Police,” I said, already fumbling with my phone to put it on loudspeaker, so I could use the Emergency App to give my location.

 

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These are the emergency contacts for NSW, Australia, I don’t remember if it gave the 999 number in Scotland. I think I just remembered it from TV shows!

“Which one first?”

“Ambulance, I would say. I have just witnessed a serious road crash. My location is XYZ”, and I gave my coordinates, reading from the screen.

I ran down the hill, the tiny first aid kit tucked under my arm.

I got to the white car first.

“Are you hurt? Any injuries?”

“No,” they both said, “We are OK, just a bit shaky.”

“Stay in the car,” I said, “I have called an ambulance.”

I turned to see a young man and woman crawling out of the silver car and watched incredulously, as they scrambled up the embankment.

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“Come! Sit!” I said, sizing up their injuries. Scratched hands from the broken glass. A large graze on his temple. Cuts to her shins and shredded tights. Both had dilated pupils and were rambling on about what had happened.

“I just didn’t see him!” the young man said.

They were in shock.

I passed my assessment on to the calm lady who was still on the other end of the phone.

“I’ll send two ambulances,” she said. “it will be a while.”

I pulled out a gauze pad from my kit and told the girl to hold it on the largest cut on her shin. The blood flowing freely from the cut, making it look more gruesome than it was.

“Press  hard with this,” I said, “what’s your name?”

“Joanna”

“Where are you hurt, Joanna? Is it ok if I touch you to see if you have any injuries?

“My back and neck are really sore.”

“I imagine they are! Can you just stay really still for me?” I draped my one, silver blanket over her shaking body and asked her to breathe with me. “Nice deep breaths Joanna… Slow down, slow down… you’ll be Ok. The ambulance is on its way.”

By this stage, some other people had begun to pull up.

“Do you need help?”

“Yes, I do! Do you have a blanket?

The Dutchman nods.

“Get it, and wrap this fellow up. He needs to stay warm.”

“What’s your name, mate?” I asked the dazed man.

“John”

“You’ve got a bit of a bump on your head there John! Can I have a look at it?”

I took another piece of gauze from the meagre first aid kit and pressed it against his bleeding head.

“Can I help? another voice said from the crowd. “I am a navy medic.”

“Take over here, mate, you can do a better job than me!”

“No, you seem to have it under control.” He walked away and melted back into the crowd.

“HANG ON!!” I thought, “Is there no one here better equipped than me to deal with this? Here I am on the other side of the world in a foreign country being a very bossy Australian telling Scottish people what to do?? Is there no-one?”

It would seem I was it.

The Uncle of the White Car Man (who I now knew was Alex) turned up at my side. They had called him straight after the crash.

“You need help,” he said. Not a question but a statement.

“Yes, mate!”

Thank god, another person willing to lead.  “Can you stop the traffic up there. We don’t want to get run over ourselves.”

There was no verge, and we were sitting right on the road.

The traffic was calm and patient. A few people got out to look at what was happening and then returned to their cars. There were offers of food and water for the injured.

“No,” I said “You don’t know if they are going to need surgery. Let’s wait for the ambo’s”.

The quizzical looks reminded me that abbreviating a word and adding an O was a uniquely Australian practice.

We waited. I checked on the two in the SUV again. They were still shaky but definitely uninjured.

My phone rang.

“Yes?”

“Harris Police here, can you tell me what has happened?”

“Road crash at (co-ordinates).  No major injuries. The traffic is building up.”

All matter of fact, as if I do this every day.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can, but we are already dealing with another matter at the other end of the island.”

It seemed like an episode of Shetland. The majestic scenery was laid out before me. The rocky outcrops, the soaring birds, the inquisitive bystanders. The grey, scudding clouds.

More time elapsed.  perhaps 30 minutes, and then the welcome wail of a siren. One ambulance had arrived.

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“Ok,” the green-clad fellow said, “What’s going on here?”

“Traffic accident, four people involved the two in the white car are a bit shaky but otherwise appear to be OK. These two, John and Joanna, crawled out of that car (the ambo lets out a long low whistle) and up the hill. They have some superficial injuries (pointing to their legs and hands)  but are both complaining of headache, backache and a sore neck. They have been conscious and lucid the whole time. Their breathing has steadied, and they seem to be able to move freely, but I have asked them to stay still. Joanna is the most distressed, but I am concerned about his contusion on John’s forehead.”

“Ah hah…” he said slowly as he put on his gloves.

Shit! No gloves! I forgot to put mine on!!

“How long ago?”

“About 40 minutes?

“Hmm ok. Can you just hold John’s head still while I have a look.”

I cradled John’s head in the way I had been shown in the advanced first aid course I had done.

The paramedic looked at me and said: “Hmmm you know what to do… are you a first responder?”

First responder? I smiled and as a million thoughts went through my head as to how an Australian holidaying in Scotland had taken charge of a traffic accident, was well, not a first responder per se, but certainly a well trained NSW SES volunteer.  How do you describe what the NSW SES is? Tick tock tick tock …it all flicked through my mind, and I decided on

“Well, no, not exactly. I am a volunteer in the emergency services in Australia. I have had some advanced training in this sort of thing.”

That would do for the time being. Another ambulance crew turned up. The paramedics decided to treat John and Joanna as having potential spinal injuries, which meant very cautious handling. I helped them strap the two onto spinal boards, and lift them onto the ambulance.

As they departed, I looked at the long, long queues of traffic stretching back on both sides of the road. The white car was still in the middle of the lane, immobile, blocking the traffic.  The once patient drivers beginning to get impatient as the ambulance vanished over the hill. To me, it seemed like another accident waiting to happen, as people began to pull out willy-nilly, trying to get past.

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In rapid-fire, I said to the Uncle “Contra-flow traffic, ten cars each way. You let ten cars past and then stop them, and then I‘ll let ten go from my end. Do that until we finish. Hold up your hand like this (the stop signal) and raise your other hand to me when you are ready to change over,”  I demonstrated a beckoning signal.

I went up the road and waved the first car on. It didn’t move. An older woman in the driver’s seat was slumped over the wheel.

“Oh my god,” I thought, “don’t tell me she’s had a heart attack while we’ve been waiting? And the ambulance has just left!”

I walked gingerly up to her car and tapped on the window. She woke up, startled. I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding.

“Move on please ma’am.”

For the next 15 minutes, we directed the traffic. I cursed the fact that I was dressed all in black and had no hi-vis, no glowing traffic wand. Not like in the training I had done.

The police rang again. They’d be there soon.

After 2 hours, they did finally arrive. The queues of traffic had gone, the ambulance had taken John and Joanna away. Alex (the driver of the white car) had calmed down, and his Aunty was now just plain angry that the police had taken so long to get there. The Uncle and I were congratulating each other on what a fantastic job we had done with the traffic. It seemed so peaceful.

The police officer began to get my details.

“Hang on a minute,” she said. “I just have to check on my colleague”. He was striding down the road, fishing something out of his pocket.

“It was his first day yesterday.”  Eye roll  “I just have to make sure he does not breathalyse them without me as a witness.”

She came back to me 20 minutes later and started to retake my statement.

It was cold. The wind had picked up, and I was busting to go to the toilet. While caught up in the middle of the emergency, I had stayed calm and in control. The only thing I could think of now was not wetting my pants in front of this police officer.

I told her I needed to go.

“Go down the road to the Youth Centre. It’s just around the bend here. Tell them the Police sent you. They’ll let you use their loo. Wait for us there.”

“Right yeah sure,” I thought. But sure enough I said the police had sent me, they let me use their loo and now more comfortable, I sat on the car bonnet and waited. Another 15 minutes later, the Police pulled up at the Youth Centre, and I  gave them my statement.

It was now three and a half hours since I had looked in that rear-view mirror and I  was finally on my way again. Cold, hungry and thirsty. However, my overwhelming emotion was pride! I had done good! I had stayed calm. I had been useful! I had used the training I had been given through the NSW State Emergency Service to render first aid and direct traffic. I might be a bossy Aussie, but who bloody cares! On this day, at that moment, I was the right person at the right time, and I helped people. Really, really helped them.

Punch the air,  Old Chook! Today you were truly invincible and very visible!


The NSW SES is a volunteer organisation which has jurisdiction over storm and flood events in New South Wales, Australia. In some rural units, they also look after road crashes. I have been an SES member for nearly 5 years. I have been trained in many aspects of emergency management. You can read about the SES here. It’s a government-funded body and one of the things I really love about Australia. We look after each other!

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