Carwoola fires one year on as 'an apocalyptic situation' remembered

Volunteer firefighter John O'Keefe was traumatised after an ordeal on the fire ground at Carwoola. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Volunteer firefighter John O'Keefe was traumatised after an ordeal on the fire ground at Carwoola. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

One year on from the Carwoola fires and the memories are still vivid, burnt into the minds of those involved.

Walls of flame more ferocious than many of the firefighters, let alone homeowners, had ever seen ripped through the area on Friday, February 17, 2017 leaving 11 homes razed and many more damaged.

A testament to the community spirit and training and equipment of firefighters, no lives were lost and very few livestock died as a result.

Remarkable stories of compassion, courage, resilience and recovery were born that day, and many more have risen from the ashes.

The main event

It was a day of total fire ban, and the fire danger rating was relatively mild, set at "very high", which is about mid-way on the scale of low to catastrophic.

Mr O'Keefe, a member of the Burra Rural Fire Brigade for the past five years, had left work at the Australian War Memorial early to make the half-hour drive to the Burra fire station, where he planned to be in case anything happened. He was in charge of the brigade that day as his captain was out of town.

About 1pm, the Burra brigade got the call to help. He recalled "a flurry of activity" in Queanbeyan's main street as fire trucks from across the region tread the same path to Carwoola.

On their arrival at the staging point, Stoney Creek brigade member, Mark Carroll introduced himself and asked to join Mr O'Keefe's crew, as the other trucks from his brigade were already on the fire ground.

They travelled up Widgiewa Road with three other trucks to meet the commander for a briefing, and were told to go straight into property protection.

"Around us was quite clear," Mr O'Keefe recalled.

"It was smokey in the distance, but it didn't look too ferocious at that stage."

"We got waved down by a captain Peter Bavington, who was near his house. He didn't ask us to go to his house, he asked us to go down the road about 30 metres to put out a spot fire," Mr O'Keefe said.

He would later learn that Mr Bavington's home burnt to the ground.

The truck was then "frantically waved down" by a Fire and Rescue vehicle battling a fire on the side of the road. The Fire and Rescue crew were concerned they were going to get run-over by the fire, so Mr O'Keefe's truck pulled up beside them.

A point of difference between the trucks is that the Rural Fire Service trucks are fitted with overhead spray bars to ensure if they are run-over by fire, they can protect themselves. Town fire trucks, like the Fire and Rescue vehicles, don't have that equipment. By pulling up alongside each other, both would be protected by the spray.

Mr O'Keefe got out of the truck to talk to the crew leader, while his team started helping to fight the fire.

Mr O'Keefe describes how he only had one glove on, the other he was holding in order to use the radio. As he came around the trucks, he saw a wall of flames.

"Everywhere you could see, higher than the trees, the sky was lit up orange and red, the fire was just about to hit us."

Mr O'Keefe struggles to talk about what happens next, as tears well in his eyes. He said there was no way he could get back into the truck in time, so he decided to shelter underneath the two trucks. He moved into the gap between them, but before he could drop down, "there was this blur as the whole truck came sideways".

Volunteer firefighter John O'Keefe was trapped between two fire trucks as the fire blazed past. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Volunteer firefighter John O'Keefe was trapped between two fire trucks as the fire blazed past. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

He was pinned between the two trucks in a small gap, with the fire hitting him.

"The pain was excruciating, crushing my back and my hips. I was screaming out, like a stuck pig, calling for someone to help me and to move the [expletive] truck. I look up and there are just flames above me and I can't keep looking up."

"I just start to try to push myself free of the truck, just any way that I can wiggle myself enough to drop down out of the fire.

"And my hand was just burning, the heat from the flames just made the truck red hot, and I was pushing on the truck trying to get free, and it just melted the skin off my hand."

Less than a minute passed and the gap tightened again, crushing Mr O'Keefe further.

He said he was screaming profanities, trying to draw the attention of his crew to what was happening.

"I was terrified. I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to get burnt alive, and it just dragged on and on."

And then Mr O'Keefe went limp. He stopped screaming. He resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die.

"I thought, well what the [expletive] have I done to my wife, my son."

He said eventually, the noise stopped and the heat disappeared as the truck water sprays came on.

"I finally looked up and there are two faces looking at me like they'd seen a ghost. They said they could hear me banging for a while until I stopped. They both thought I was dead, but they couldn't do anything because of the fire."

Mr O'Keefe later found out what happened - another truck trying to escape being run-over by fire had reversed into the corner of his vehicle, twice, before coming to a standstill.

The smouldering remains of a property after the fire. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The smouldering remains of a property after the fire. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Once both trucks were moved, Mr O'Keefe was dragged from the gap and "medically evacuated" - but access to the fire ground was limited. Both helicopter and ambulance were out of the option, so Mr O'Keefe was put on a stretcher in the back of a fire truck and taken out.

It was at this time when Mark Carroll pulled up the sleeve of his yellows to discover his own burns.

Mr Carroll and Mr O'Keefe saw the wall of flames at similar times from different positions.

Mr Carroll was at the back of the truck getting another hose when he felt it.

He said in essence, the firefighters were disoriented. They were looking the wrong way, thinking the spotting they were fighting was the main fire front, when it was actually coming up behind them.

"It wasn't clear that was happening," he recalled.

"As I got to the back corner of the truck, all of a sudden the area just filled with smoke and you couldn't really see.

"It all happened very quickly. I began running towards the truck, and as I was running the fire front hit. It became incredibly hot, incredibly loud, and I started to feel the embers hitting my face.

Firefighter Mark Carroll, a year on from the Carwoola fires. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Firefighter Mark Carroll, a year on from the Carwoola fires. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"I got to the point where in my mind, things started to slow down. I can remember having two thoughts in slow, calm time. The first thought was, 'ok, this is how it ends'. My second thought was 'gee, I really didn't expect this to happen today'."

"Half an hour earlier I had been sitting at my desk in front of a computer, and now I'm literally in the middle of burning flames, an apocalyptic situation."

The next thing he knew he was sitting in the back of the truck, boiling.

The only thing about that run Mr Carroll remembers is hot embers hitting his face, along with smoke and flames. As he climbed into the truck, the full force of the fire caught his elbow, and resulted in third degree burns through his personal protection clothing.

"The fire just vaporised the area, it melted the road. The intensity was just amazing. You hear stories but until you've seen it, you can't comprehend it," Mr Carroll said.

Inside the truck, he felt his body temperature drop slightly.

An aerial shot of the Carwoola fires.

An aerial shot of the Carwoola fires.

"I thought, I might make it, and I was really quite surprised."

That's when the truck reversed into the truck Mr Carroll was sitting in, trapping Mr O'Keefe.

Mr Carroll said when it became clear someone was trapped between the trucks, he thought "that poor guy, he must be dead".

The Fire and Rescue team had a trained paramedic in their crew who assisted Mr O'Keefe. Mr Carroll waited until he was being evacuated before asking for help with his own wounds.

"I knew I was injured, I knew my arm was burnt, but I didn't want them fussing over me until John was out," Mr Carroll said.

He remained with the Burra truck, and despite broken brake lines due to the collision and no water left after the overhead sprays were activated, they drove out.

But there was more to come. Fire over-ran the truck again but the driver, without water for protection, kept driving through the flames with Mr Carroll and another crew member sheltering under blankets.

"That was the third time that day I thought we were done for," Mr Carroll said.

They met the ambulance at the end of the road, and Mr O'Keefe and Mr Carroll were taken to the Canberra Hospital.

The two didn't know each other before that day, but have been good friends ever since.

For Mr O'Keefe, the physical recovery took a long time, but the mental recovery is taking longer. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, and most days are difficult. Physically, incredibly, all of his bones were intact. He suffered damage to muscle, ligaments and third degree burns on various parts of his body. He said the overhead water sprays saved his life.

Trying to "get back to normality", he returned to work part time two weeks later, to his job with Spotless at the Australian War Memorial. The incredible support from his team at work, from his family and from the brigade was pivotal in his recovery, he said.

Mr O'Keefe said he cautiously went back to firefighting just a few weeks ago, after he was given the all-clear.

Firefighters Mark Carroll and John O'Keefe have become close friends since their shared ordeal during last year's Carwoola fires. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Firefighters Mark Carroll and John O'Keefe have become close friends since their shared ordeal during last year's Carwoola fires. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"If you're going to live in a community like that, you need to be prepared to help out. You can't expect other people to come and help protect your property if you're not prepared to do it for yourself and help others."

The sentiment is shared by Peter Bavington, a public servant and captain of the Captains Flat Fire Brigade who lost his home in the Carwoola blaze.

He had a short shift on the fire ground after seeing his home of 17 years go up in flames.

He was astounded, he said, because he really believed they could stop it.

"I didn't expect it to take off the way it did. I didn't believe anything was going to happen."

Thankfully he had safely evacuated his dog earlier in the day, and his son, 14, who was living with him was still at school.

He said when he saw his home alight, he felt detached at first.

"It must have sunk in quickly because I knew I needed to leave where I was, I really wasn't safe."

After 17 years in the RFS, Mr Bavington said he's never seen anything as ferocious as the Carwoola fire.

Recovery

Mr Bavington said bad things happened that day but lots of good came out of it. His home, along with 10 others including Kevin and Vanessa Lindley's, were considered total losses.

As a family, we walked away with the clothes we stood up in, and the dog. That's been tough, but lots of people have been really generous."

He said in the days following, he heard from some people for the first time in 30 years. Nine people offered him homes to live in. The head of Queanbeyan's emergency operations centre, policeman Mick Handley, a man he'd never met, brought him a bag of clothes. His workplace held events to raise money for the community appeal.

"There truly is a good streak in humanity, and we mustn't forget that," Mr Bavington said.

He said it would take more than that fire to beat him down. He's still an active member of his brigade.

"To say it doesn't affect me would be naive," he said.

"But I don't want to be defined as the person whose house burnt down."

Mr Bavington said Carwoola no longer feels like home.

NSW RFS Lake George Zone superintendent Tim Carrolland membership services officer Darren Marks, NSW Police south eastern Regional Emergency Management Officer Paul Lloyd and duty officer and emergency services operations controller for the Carwoola fires, Michael Handley.

NSW RFS Lake George Zone superintendent Tim Carrolland membership services officer Darren Marks, NSW Police south eastern Regional Emergency Management Officer Paul Lloyd and duty officer and emergency services operations controller for the Carwoola fires, Michael Handley.

NSW Police Regional Emergency Management officer Paul Lloyd said once they realised they couldn't stop the fire, they prepared for the aftermath.

"You hope for the best but you plan for the worst case scenario," he said.

Mr Lloyd said the recovery wasn't an overnight thing, it's still going on a year later.

QPRC liaison officer Lorrae Stokes listed off plenty of people and organisations involved both during the blaze and in the aftermath. 

"Lots of people wanted to donate lots of things," she said. 

The council's community appeal raised $200,000, most of which has been donated throughout the year to those who lost everything. 

Ms Stokes said it was the first time the council had put that specific focus on the recovery effort, and there was room to build on that in future.