The wife of a volunteer firefighter who was killed when a fire tornado flipped his truck near the NSW-Victoria border has received a bravery award on his behalf at his funeral in Holbrook.
- Samuel McPaul has been remembered as a “hero” who brought positive energy to those around him
- His wife, Megan, is expecting to give birth to their first child in May
- The Prime Minister, New South Wales Premier and Rural Fire Service chief are among the mourners
Hundreds of mourners were told of Samuel McPaul’s selfless and compassionate nature, with one friend saying that Mr McPaul’s unborn child would grow up hearing stories about the “amazing man” who was their father.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons were among those to attend the 28-year-old’s funeral, which was held at the Holbrook Sports Stadium.
Mr McPaul died after a “freakish weather event” flipped his truck while he was fighting the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic, 70 kilometres east of Albury on December 30.
Before the service, uniformed firefighters carried in his helmet, and his firefighting colleagues formed a guard of honour afterwards for Mr McPaul’s family to walk through as they left.
Opening the service, senior chaplain Ian Spall described Mr McPaul as a creative spirit who was “always looking for a better way to do things”.
“A very honest person — sometimes he had no filter,” he said.
“He was generous and his kindness was infectious.
“The basketball court was where he loved to be.
“Some young people have his face on their screen savers in this community, those who played basketball with him. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Friends recall ‘magical’ wedding
Mr McPaul had been married to his wife Megan for 18 months and their first child is due in May.
His friend Jennifer Hyde said he was an only child who had a passion for reading and developed an affinity for animals at an early age.
He studied animal science at Charles Sturt University, which is where he met his wife-to-be Meg.
“Sam also had a passion for custom cars so decided to become a mechanic,” Ms Hyde said.
“Sam always did things faster and better than everyone — or so he thought.”
Another friend, Rebekah Hargreaves, said that whenever Mr McPaul spoke about Meg, he beamed.
“The day he married Meg was the most magical day we have witnessed,” she said.
“Together, Sam and Meg made sure every moment was perfect. It’s an event we’ll treasure forever.”
“The day before Sam was tragically taken from us, he and Meg shared ultrasound photos with us, which showed Bub with long lanky legs. He said: ‘Yep, that’s my kid alright!’
“You have touched the lives of so many in your short life. Your final act of bravery has touched the lives of so many in this country.
“But we know you will forever be watching over us. You will always be our hero and we love you so much.”
Basketball teammate, Michael McPherson, said Mr McPaul spent so much time at the stadium some might think he almost lived there.
“It was hard to feel down when you were around Sam because he’s such a positive person,” he said.
Jarrod Anderson, an emergency services colleague, said Mr McPaul would give you the shirt off his back if he thought he could help in any way and never expected anything in return.
“His heart is even bigger than his smile,” Mr Anderson said.
“Sam will be missed more than he ever could have realised.
“Sam’s Bub is going to grow up hearing many stories about their dad and know how special they are to have such an amazing man as their father.”
Fire chief mourns ‘remarkable young man’
Mr Fitzsimmons told those gathered that Mr McPaul loved and wanted to contribute to his community and was diligent as a firefighter after joining the RFS in 2016.
“He was very close to his colleagues and would lend a hand to anyone who needed it,” he said.
“The message from the family to the other firefighters who were there that terrible night is ‘don’t doubt your judgment’.
“Meg wanted me to say thank you for your part, your role for staying there and not letting go until Sam was safely and respectfully removed.
“Please take those words with you, they’re heartfelt and sincere.”
Mr Fitzsimmons awarded Mr McPaul’s wife Megan a bravery award on his behalf.
“We pass on our respect and admiration for a wonderful father-to-be and wonderful husband,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
“He paid the ultimate price for making a difference to his community.
“Sam was a remarkable young man who lost his life as a hero.
“Thank you for sharing Sam with us at the Rural Fire Service.
“If we don’t have the support of partners, we don’t have the volunteers who make up our Rural Fire Service.”
Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ played as the family laid a floral tribute before a long line of RFS career firefighters, volunteers and basketball players formed an honour guard for Mr McPaul.
A fire truck with lights flashing then led the hearse away from the sports centre while a number of RFS helicopters flew overhead.
On the day Mr McPaul died, he and two others had been mustering cattle caught in a paddock on flat ground.
Several other firefighters were injured and a second vehicle was also blown over in the same weather event.
He is among three NSW firefighters killed this fire season and another three people who were working to fight fires have been killed in Victoria.
Small community-based firefighting teams emerging from the Braidwood bushfires have proved to be well-organised groups that save the properties — and potentially the lives — of local farmers and distant neighbours.
The so-called Mongarlowe Mozzies is one, with other groups coming together at Araluen, Bombay Road and Cooma Road.
The Mongarlowe Mozzies, who have professional firefighters in their midst, came together realising that Braidwood RFS, with its limited resources, could not be everywhere.
These community members work together, putting out spot fires while recognising that safety is number one, and that accountability and back-up means that they are never alone.
Braidwood residents embrace the Mozzies
Mongarlowe filmmaker, farmer and mechanic Matthew Thane, a member of the Mozzies, has been busy over the past month documenting the region as it burns, camera in one hand, fire hose in the other.
“We make sure that we’re all sent out with food, water, a radio, comms on the RFS channel, and we also use an app to stay in touch and alert others when spot fires appear,” he said.
“Local residents catered for us, they looked after us. People donated water, food, time, fuel to us. Pumps, tanks, everything. It’s a very supportive gang because they see the effect the Mozzies have had on the community, of slowing the fire down or stopping it in some cases.”
In the Mongarlowe area, the RFS response has been to include the Mozzies in fire briefings. This ensures that they can be in the right place at the right time, not getting in the way, but backing them up.
“Without the Mosquito crews a lot more properties, houses, lives, may have been lost. I believe the RFS acknowledge that and they’ve been terrific,” Mr Thane said.
Working with limited resources
Braidwood RFS deputy captain Danny King is clearly supportive of the Mozzies’ ability to band together and get things done.
“They’ve taken it upon themselves. They’ve used their time and energy, at their own expense by running their vehicles, the equipment and so forth to basically support the effort for containing this fire,” he said.
Mr King stressed that the fires were an ongoing concern, but it gave RFS volunteers some comfort knowing the Mozzies were out there.
“Those guys are out there putting out spot fires we can’t necessarily get to because our resources are limited, so a big thank you from the local RFS,” he said
“We enormously appreciate the effort that they’ve done. Without them, I think the outcome would have been very different.”
‘Putting wet stuff on the hot stuff’
At one point, Braidwood was completely cut off by fire.
Nerriga Road was cut off, Kings Highway to Batemans Bay was cut, Cooma Road was cut, and the smaller roads that run around Braidwood were cut as well.
Residents were on their own.
“The Mosquito Army came about where the need was for it, I suppose firstly to protect your own farm,” Mr Thane said.
“Most farmers have got a ute, most farmers have got a 1,000-litre IBC water tank, most farmers have got a pump, or they went and got one.
“A thousand litres does not sound like a lot, but it can actually put out a fire.
“Twenty or 30 units turn up to a fire, and you’re putting 30,000 litres of wet stuff on the hot stuff. You know, that’s got to have an effect.”
Filmmaking on the fire front
Mr Thane has been making amateur films most of his life, and most of them have been about people he knows.
In this case, with the fires, he was hesitant about doing it but considered that this was a story people would want to know about.
“I suppose the motivation for documenting and capturing what’s going on in Braidwood was, one day this is going to stop,” he said.
“When the rains come, and things settle down people are going to want to see what we all went through as a community, and celebrate what we went through as a community, and how we all pulled together.”
Mates helping mates
Farringdon’s former fire captain, Cathy Noakes, got involved with the Mosquito Army when she realised how stretched the RFS were, and that the Mozzies were quite capable of putting out spot fires to help save farms.
“We are a tight, organised group. A lot of the people in our group are RFS qualified. We all had UHF radios and we were in very tight communication between us and triple-zero and the fire control centre at Braidwood,” she said.
“We weren’t just renegades running around getting in the way, and I think the Mozzies played an important part in stopping the fires from going through to Majors Creek.”
Winning, grinning, working, and learning
James Boljkovac joined the Mongarlowe Mozzies’ fleet to try to help the local RFS, which he is doing, but his sentiments were strongly affiliated with his neighbourly crew.
“I can’t talk for all the mosquito fleet, but I know there’s a lot of us out there,” he said.
“Thanks, guys. We are making a big difference out here. Following the RFS around, just watching the RFS doing their job has taught us a lot.
“These guys [the RFS] are amazing. They are smashing fires and we are just backing them up.”
Balmoral Village 2571
The Rural Fire Service withdrew vital firefighting equipment from a small NSW community on a day it came under intense bushfire attack, an RFS captain has said.
- Brendon O’Connor said that as Green Wattle Creek fire ripping through bushland in the Southern Highlands, vital firefighting services were directed elsewhere
- In December, bushfires burnt 20 of Balmoral Village’s 140 homes
- The town is now undertaking an enormous clean-up effort to remove many of its trees burnt in the fire
Balmoral Village RFS captain Brendon O’Connor said he did not want to “point fingers”, but bluntly added that his community was “abandoned” in its hour of need last month.
With the Green Wattle Creek fire ripping through bushland in the Southern Highlands, vital firefighting services were directed elsewhere, he said.
By the time the fire was bearing down on Balmoral on Saturday, December 21, he said, the local brigade was drastically understaffed and ill-equipped.
“On the Thursday and Friday we had a great number of resources, but unfortunately a decision was made on Friday evening to remove all resources from Balmoral, including bulk water, and that was replaced with a small water truck,” he said.
“We were asked to remove our own trucks from the village, which I refused to do.
“To have all resources removed and when it went bad, those resources couldn’t get back into us and the whole village was burning.”
A small team of RFS volunteers who chose to stay and fight successfully saved much of the village, but 20 of the town’s 120 houses were lost and the brigade ran out of water mid-fight.
“We were abandoned during the fight on the Saturday until much later and we’ve been abandoned since,” Mr O’Connor said, adding that help had come but after the fact.
“We haven’t seen any government agency, and it’s been too hard for them to come into the village and offer assistance.
“Now we’re seeing it, but that’s probably due to the power of media [coverage].”
Counselling, clean-up help needed
Mr O’Connor has been asking for counselling for residents and firefighters, and help to remove hundreds of burnt trees.
As much as 90 per cent of Balmoral’s trees have been burnt, bringing the new risk of falling branches for those moving around the village.
“The big thing about this is learning from it and how can we try and reduce these impacts on communities in the future,” he said.
“A lot of us haven’t been at our workplaces for weeks and it’s a big drain on everyone.
“If we can learn to do things better in the future. It’s not about pointing fingers at individuals — it’s about having the right resources and funding to do the work we’re here for.”
The RFS has been approached for a response to Mr O’Connor’s comments but is yet to provide one.
Surviving in a custom-made kiln
Balmoral Village potter Steve Harrison had laboriously prepared his house to survive a fire, but it was a last resort option to shelter in a kiln that saved his life.
After switching on his pump-operated sprinkler system, he was ready to drive out of town but was met with a wall of fire on his street.
“I realised that I was going to die so I grabbed my bag to hide in my kiln, which I’d built specially a few days before as a fall-back position.
“No heat escapes from a kiln and no heat can get in — they’re amazing things.”
While he saved his own life, his beloved pottery building and kiln shed that he built was burnt.
He now faces the prospect of rebuilding in the latter years of his working life, cleaning up enormous trees on his property and working out complicated insurances claims.
He is also struggling with the after-effects of his traumatic experience.
Resident grateful for aid agencies during crisis
Pat Lawrence has lived in Balmoral Village for 57 years, and despite living behind the RFS brigade she evacuated with her husband to nearby Bowral during the December bushfire.
It was here the Red Cross welcomed them, processed their registration and arranged for seven nights’ accommodation in a local motel, as well as providing meals at the Mittagong RSL.
In addition to feeding evacuees, the RSL has provided over 5,000 hot packaged meals that have been sent to RFS volunteers on fire grounds.
“The council organised a bus from Bowral to come and have a look [at Balmoral],” she said.
“It helped us all because we saw what we were coming back to, but driving in that day was terrible, our mouths were dropping.”
She said that amid the devastation, the fire had made one positive impact on the community.
“New people that have moved in haven’t integrated and it’s brought us all together,” she said.
“Every time we see each other it’s a big hug-a-thon.”
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“We’ll start to see the stuff falling from the sky, let’s wait until that moment to defend!”
Rural Fire Service (RFS) Group Captain Mick Anderson stands on the tray of a truck addressing hundreds of people.
This is how he wants them to defend their properties from ember attack in the small town of Narooma on the NSW South Coast.
All around him are what is left of its residents.
Those who have stayed behind feel the heat of the mammoth Badja Road bushfire which is almost 200,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
Nearby, it is not bin day in the town of Dalmeny but there is a scattering of yellow-lid bins down many streets.
Residents there are sending a message by leaving their recycling bins out — it means the person in that property has decided to stay and fight the flames.
Soaring temperatures and strong winds mean conditions are eerily similar to those which fanned deadly blazes on New Year’s Eve.
Local resident Ron Mason’s street is lined with bush and he’s using a leaf blower to prepare his property.
“You have got to have that fire bin out, so the firefighters know, if the house is on fire, they know to come and have a look for you,” he said.
The local RFS brigades shared the idea on social media pages and were met with chatter.
“People were saying, ‘Oh I’ll leave a piece of paper in the letterbox or on the door’,” said Dalmeny RFS Captain Greg Hill.
“In the conditions, paper is going to rip off, or it won’t survive, whereas bins are straight away a clear message.
“If it’s empty, put a brick, put something in it, so it doesn’t blow over.
“That way if the time comes and we are in the vicinity … we know someone’s still there that we can help.”
The NSW death toll since the start of the bushfire season is 17, including eight since Monday and at least 449 homes destroyed on the South Coast since New Year’s Eve.
Dalmeny and other tourist towns nearby, like Kianga and Narooma, are quiet during what is usually the busiest time of the year — summer.
Clearings close to the ocean are packed with people who haven’t managed to get out of the “tourist leave zone” put in place by the RFS.
Narooma residents Bernard and Arlene Jackson say many locals have left, but they’ve chosen to stay — and have placed their bin out the front.
“Friends have gone to Canberra … some of them you can’t contact,” Mr Jackson said.
“There’s only one person we rang who said he was staying, he’s got an exit plan from the other side of the lake in a boat.”
Back at the meeting, every time a fire truck drives past there is a roar from the crowd — some are in tears.
Mr Anderson instructs the crowd like a general addressing his troops before battle.
“If you are really super worried about things … that’s the time to leave,” he says.
Many already have, and will spend days in the evacuation centre in town, waiting and wondering what they’ll return home to.
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NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, who went on a European holiday during the ongoing bushfire crisis, has labelled his absence “inexcusable”.
- Mr Elliott said he “should have put [his] RFS family first”
- NSW is in a State of Emergency, bracing for catastrophic conditions on Saturday
- The NSW bushfire death toll rose to 17 on Friday
Mr Elliott had been away in Europe as the bushfires ravaged much of the country and his state of New South Wales.
On Friday night, he tagged himself in a social media post as being at the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and admitted his decision to leave the country for a holiday was not the right one.
“Just received the evening briefing from Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers ahead of tomorrow’s Statewide Total Fire Ban and Extreme Fire Danger,” Mr Elliott posted on his Facebook account.
“My absence over the last week was inexcusable.
“I should have put my RFS family first and foremost given the current conditions [even my own family acknowledge that] and now it’s time to get back to work.”
Mr Elliott went on to say he is most concerned for some of the areas that have already been decimated by the bushfires raging across the state, with catastrophic conditions predicted at the weekend.
“The areas of most concern tomorrow are the South Coast, Wollondilly and Snowy Mountains and we will have 3,000 firefighters in the Area of Operations with a further 600 on standby to be deployed at short notice,” Mr Elliott wrote.
“On top of that we have 104 aircraft providing air support to the more than 700 appliances.
“The good news is that after tomorrow’s extreme weather we should have a week of milder conditions which should provide relief to the firefighters and an opportunity to start the process of containment.”
At a press conference on Saturday morning, Mr Elliott was asked if he planned to resign.
“I came back to step up, not step down,” he said.
The RFS had already said that Saturday will be a “bad day”.
RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers warned southern areas of New South Wales would be in the most danger.
“It is likely we will see some areas during the day reach the catastrophic forecast, particularly in the southern part of New South Wales,” he said.
“Obviously we are gearing up to that and while it is rated extreme it is in the upper end of extreme and it will be a bad day. Whatever the rating is, it will be pretty bad.”
Deputy Commissioner Rogers said authorities were as ready as they would ever be.
“This state of readiness for New South Wales can’t be matched anywhere. We are as ready as we can be,” he said.
The fears for the catastrophic weekend conditions come as the NSW death toll rose to 17 on Friday.
Authorities announced a man had died from injuries he sustained in a fire in the Northern Tablelands last year.
It is believed the 59-year-old man suffered serious burns after taking shelter in a water tank during the Stockyards Flat fire in November.
He was airlifted to the Royal North Shore Hospital for treatment but died on Sunday.
So far since Monday, eight people have died.
Thousands of people are spending New Year’s Eve in a state of fear and uncertainty as huge fires threaten towns and communities across eastern Victoria and the New South Wales South Coast.
- Residents confront apocalyptic scenes in towns ravaged by the bushfires
- Thousands fled to the coast in Mallacoota and were prepared to jump into the water
- Large swathes of Vic and NSW are blanketed by smoke with significant losses of property
Holiday-makers who expected to be celebrating tonight have been forced to flee walls of flame that have turned the sky red and rained ashes down on once-idyllic waterside retreats.
The bodies of two people, believed to be a father and son, have been found in the Bega Valley town of Cobargo, where dozens of buildings are feared destroyed.
More people are missing and there are fears the death toll will rise.
This is what it’s like out on the firegrounds as 2019 comes to an end.
In Mallacoota, on the coast of East Gippsland, thousands of people were forced to take shelter on the waterfront today as fire ripped into the town.
Some fled on boats, others were told they might have to throw themselves into the sea if the flames came too close.
The drama unfolded under a blood-red sky and to the sound of gas canisters exploding as the fires entered the town.
Many people wore breathing masks to limit exposure to the toxic bushfire smoke, while others improvised with whatever they had, including cloths and ski goggles.
Those inside the town described the scenes as “apocalyptic”.
The sky turned dark as the fire reached the edge of town shortly before 8:30am. Mallacoota resident Don Ashby told the ABC it was “like the darkest, darkest night”.
The southern NSW town of Bermagui was also blanketed in thick smoke this morning.
This video shows the main street in near darkness at 8:45am.
In the nearby Bega Valley town of Cobargo, large swathes of land have been ravaged by the fire, with buildings on the main street reduced to rubble.
Long-term residents Brenda Whiffen and her husband who spent the night defending their property said they could hear the fires “roaring like the ocean”.
Back in Victoria, thousands of people gathered at the Mallacoota foreshore to wait for the fire to pass.
This vision was taken at 11:00am, local time.
While authorities later said the fire had bypassed the town after a wind change in the afternoon, the CFA’s Steve Warrington said houses had burnt down on the outskirts of town.
Elsewhere in East Gippsland, Kelsey Rettino’s mother shot vision of the blackened bushland and homes in Sarsfield this morning after the Marthavale bushfire tore through the area.
Ms Rettino said it was “heartbreaking” seeing completely razed bushland.
Helicopter vision shows flattened structures and blackened properties, while some people who passed through the town were shocked by the damage they saw.
Daniel Marshall filmed his return home to Quaama, north of Bega, to find his home in one piece but his shed gone.
“It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
On the New South Wales South Coast, blazes are burning from Nowra down to the Victorian border.
Mark Coombe from the RFS shot this video of the fires around Nowra today.
But fires also broke out further north.
Yesterday Tracey Corbin-Matchett tweeted vision of flames barrelling towards the Tarbuck Bay holiday house she was staying in, north of Newcastle.
“My family just ran for our lives through bush,” she said.
“Flames ripped through in minutes.
“My kids were screaming. The most frightening experience of my life.”