Read the transcript for Episode 8 of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: Bawley Point Brigade's New Recruits Take the Fight to Bushfire Fears

Tom Melville 00:00 Hello, and welcome to Voice of Real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places, and perspectives from beyond the big cities. I'm Tom Melville. This week we're continuing our series on fire affected communities one year on from Black Summer. We're going back to the South Coast, and speaking to residents of Bawley Point, many of whom were forced to evacuate to the beach as fires bore down on their homes. Bawley Point residents seeking comfort after Black Summer have joined the local RFS. The brigade has seen an influx of new recruits - particularly women and teenagers - looking for a way to help their community and to battle bushfire fear. Doug Dingwall works for the Canberra Times. He was on the South Coast in December, 2019, at the height of the fires. He went back recently to find out what's changed in Bawley Point, a town of just 700.

Samantha Walker 00:48 My five year old is just obsessed. She loves it. She said the other day that she wants to be a firefighter like Mummy when she gets older, which is very cute. She was old enough to kind of know what was going on during the fires. And I think having me kind of take this role, has given her a little bit more confidence when it comes to dealing with fires as well. She came down this morning and reported to me that it was a high fire danger today.

Doug Dingwall 01:13 Bawley Point Residents, Samantha Walker joined the rural fire service in March. She's already gained her BF, her bush firefighter accreditation after surviving the black summer that engulfed the south coast of New South Wales. She wanted to be able to help next time

Samantha Walker 01:28 I was searching for something that would give me the power back, give me the control of the situation. And I think that that's what it was, I wanted to do it for my children. And I also wanted to do it for myself. And not just be you know, a mum, like I want to have a bigger role and community and I want to do my part, the more information and the more knowledge you have, it's just gonna break down that fee, I think and I think that was a big driving force for me

Doug Dingwall 02:01 In late November 2019. The coast was readying for its peak holiday period, but a decade of dry conditions and two years of drought had set the stage for a dangerous fire season.

Charlie Magnusson 02:13 Normally on the south coast, we have you know, high 20s, maybe late 30s with very occasional very warm day. Nice cool sea breezes. But last summer I just saw a consistent amount of very extreme weather days and that was obviously great fuel for the fire to just continue on burning. In a world what could only be described as a ferocious manner.

Doug Dingwall 02:37 Charlie Magnuson is Captain of the Bawley Point rural fire brigade. He's been with them for nine years, and captain for three of them. He's calm and down to earth, and the kind of person you'd want leading you in a bushfire. I get the sense that his brigade members are in good hands.

Charlie Magnusson 02:54 On the Thursday the fifth, I was asked by the RFS to step up to the divisional commander here. So I was in charge of every 100 firefighters probably 20 to 35 trucks to helicopters. So it really threw me in the deep end. So it was a big learning curve was quite stressful, I suppose. But I had a lot of good people working with me and that made a hell of a difference.

Doug Dingwall 03:18 On November 26 a lightning strike started a fire in a remote hard to reach galley of the Currowan state forest northwest of the popular holiday town Batemans Bay. Fanned by strong winds within a couple of days it was more than 2500 hectares. Charlie'sllies thoughts turn to his village, Bawley Point

Charlie Magnusson 03:41 From the fire shed which is getting close to where the fire came over from the lake, jumped the lake, it came rushing up the hill and there is a house on the top of the hill and a house down below it. And those flames were 10, 20 meters above the homes when they came over that hill. To be honest to all of us, we thought oh this is going to be shocking. We're going to lose half the village but all the brigades Fire and Rescue everyone went about their job the two helicopters arrived as well in stopping it from jumping over the Murramurang road which would have seen it go into the large part of the urban community.

Doug Dingwall 04:16 Stewart Craig doesn't live locally at Bawley, but he does volunteer for that brigade. This meant he was pretty much cut off from his home while the car on fire advanced into the village on December five

Stewart Craig 04:27 I traveled in as early as I could I was probably here at seven o'clock in the morning on the third. That same day the highway got cut and that was it. But the community they took good care of us too. I mean they kept fed. As for conditions it was the smoke haze, the thicker it got the closer you knew what was coming.

Doug Dingwall 04:50 Stewart worked from the fire shed sending out updates on the brigade social media channel. But even there, the fires basically came right up to the building. Charlie Magnussen stuck his head into the office and told Stuart to find safety in another nearby shed. Stewart says despite the drama, the atmosphere inside was calm.

Stewart Craig 05:11 A lot of smoke was getting into the shed at the time. So I got them to wet towels and tea towels and stuff like that. Stick them under the door cracks and stuff like that so that the smoke would get in. And that worked for a little bit. But then you had people coming in like the firefighters coming in, because you know, they're being overpowered by smoke and heat. We had one guy who had blacked out from one of the other brigades and it was all a bit dramatic. But everybody I was amazed at how everybody kept their cool. I didn't have to worry about anybody being frightened or scared. They probably were, but they weren't showing it, you know, just just members of the public and why they were reacting. That was keeping me calm, so I was doing fine.

Doug Dingwall 05:49 Hendrik Boone has lived on the south coast for 11 years, and has volunteered with his brigade for eight of them. Originally from the Netherlands, he came to Bawley point to live out his Australian dream, he fell in love with the place. Hendrik says the fight for the village was exhausting. But it was early days. And they had a bit of luck on their side

Hendrik Boone 06:09 We were like up the street here in Oreo, at the corner and you actually didn't have much time to let it go for you had because at that moment, it passed here. And the shed's been really in danger and the two houses over there. Then it came on the other side into Bawley and just when it goes inside bawley, he the wind came in. And it went the other way which was fantastic for us. But it also meant we all had to come back, jump into trucks. And we had to go to the other side because it was impacting everywhere, just literally everywhere. And I remember that that night we came back and again exhausted we slept on the floor here.

Doug Dingwall 06:51 The fact that it was so early in the life of the car on fire helped Bawley point. It meant that more firefighting resources were available for the town's defense. Charlie wonders what would have happened if the fire struck the village even a few weeks later, when it was much larger and hit many communities at the same time.

Charlie Magnusson 07:10 We were lucky to be the first village with the fire impact into the village, which meant I was given a lot of resources by the RFS and fire rescue. I also got two helicopters assigned to me later in the afternoon. And in the end also, we had a subtly change which helped put the brakes on the fire and lay out all my ground crew and helicopters to go in and stop the fire in its tracks. Yeah, so we were very lucky in that sense. lucky to have all those resources thrown at us.

Doug Dingwall 07:38 Retiree Carl Noone and his wife were living in their dream home, tucked away in the bush about 500 meters from the center of Bawley point when the Currowan fire came.

Carl Noone 07:47 We had five days leading up to it of mostly just the fear of not knowing when it was going to come and I remember coming up to the fire shed on maybe the third and saying look, when's it gonna hit there was the orange skies. There was smoke, the wind conditions were coming our way. And I felt that we were under imminent threat and they said no, it's like 10 kilometers away. It just looks like it's right there because the orange sky. And every night you go to bed and you just had this orange glow of the Currowan fire. You think you can sleep but you just don't sleep. So the day, the fifth to see the fire coming was was almost a relief to just know that it was going to be over. Be it that or not,

Doug Dingwall 08:32 Along with members of the local RFS, Carl fought to save his home while his wife made for safety at the beach.

Carl Noone 08:38 It was like 45 minutes from the first side of flames till the fire is left. And when they left the flames were and I'm not exaggerating, 40-50 meters into the sky, to the east of the house. I said to the firies, what are you leaving for the trees are on fire. I'm standing here I'm holding out the ground because all the mulch around the house was on fire. And the pool was lighting up and I'm running around with buckets because my hose wouldn't reach that far. And I said Are you sure it's a good time to leave? And they said we've got to go and save other houses. And I said okay, yep.

Doug Dingwall 09:14 Carl's home was saved in the end, and he's since joined his local Brigade, part of a wave of volunteers up and down Australia's East Coast signing up in the wake of the fires. At least 8000 new volunteers. By the end of the day, Bawley Point had been saved. Not a single life home or business was lost on December 5, 2019. firefighter crews, aerial water bombing and a late afternoon wind change saved Bawley point from destruction. Helicopters left the area and smoke thinned. Even after the bushfire changed direction, Firefighters jumped back into their trucks and moved to its other side to keep fighting in the evening. As the temperature dropped, they returned to the shed on Thrush street and slept on the floor. For the men and women of the local fire brigade, and brigades up and down the coast, summer had just arrived and the Currowan fire was still raging. Here's Charlie Magnussen, again,

Charlie Magnusson 10:18 look the smoke, and the ash down here in our area and other villages near us, Blacked out the sky for a long time, it was two weeks before we saw the beautiful blue sky that we're used to. The fire itself, the one thing I sort of talked about is the consistently huge flame heights that we came up against. everywhere we went, we've always seen large flame heights in a fire but not this consistent. Not this long, over six to seven weeks. It just was never ending. And it got to the point where you're just so used to those flame hearts, they no longer scared you. But it's still it's exhausting. The whole thing was exhausting. Not just the fighting of it, but just you know being there. So it was a very hard time for everybody and you're away from your family as well as you would imagine. So your families are not knowing where you are from hour to hour during that period of time, which is a festive time. It's an emotional time for all the firefighters and their families.

Doug Dingwall 11:14 Hendrik recalls the long days Hendrik Boone 11:16 The sound, smell. I remember that being weeks and weeks in smoke. And I take a gym to go to somewhere in January somebody just read a long day of work in Bendalong to prepare and to actually literally fight the fire as well the same as we did here in Bawley. And we're driving back and driving just through the little hills in front of Milton and you see fire everywhere, literally everywhere see a house burning their car burning their people standing in tears somewhere else. we've just done 15 or 16 hours just exhausted. I've never been to war, but I can presume it looks a bit like that. But it was unbelievable.

Doug Dingwall 12:01 The Currowan fire was eventually brought under control in February 2020, 74 days after that lightning strike in the state forest near batemans Bay. The fire burned through nearly 500,000 hectares and destroyed 312 homes throughout southeastern New South Wales. Thanks to RFS volunteers like Hendrick, Charlie and Stuart 1889 homes were saved. The figure which the people of bully point I'm most proud of, however, is the number of people who have joined the local fire brigade since black summer: 15. Here's Stewart Craig again.

Stewart Craig 12:38 normally after you have a fire event, you do get a lot of volunteers that come in, but you normally have about a 75% dropout rate. Okay, we got 15 members, I think this time, and you usually find that within a space of say three months, they drop out because they think that all volunteer I'll become a firefighter. But they think that they're going to become a firefighter straightaway. But as soon as they learn that I know you've got to be trained before you get on that fire ground. That drop off. I haven't got the time for that, you know, and so they just they just disappear quietly type of thing. We haven't lost one of the newbies, not one they're turning up to training every Thursday. It's just a complete turnaround to what I've experienced before. And I think it's mainly because they are local people and because it impacted on on Bawley. And they now want to make sure that their community is safe.

Doug Dingwall 13:32 I met new volunteers Samantha Walker in that RFS shed, which was nearly destroyed by fire last year. Samantha grew up in batemans Bay, the south coast is her home, but had only moved back to the region from Sydney in December 2019. In the middle of the fires, Samantha now lives in Bawley point and says she's keen to do anything she can for her community.

Samantha Walker 13:55 being caught up in the Currowan fire really kind of gave me that motivation to come and join. Didn't like the feeling of kind of feeling a bit helpless during the situation, especially with my two small children and my father when we were evacuated. So it was just the motivation that I needed to come and be part of the community and just do my part really.

Doug Dingwall 14:17 On my visit to Bawley point. I also met Sue Brodie in the shed. She was chatting to other volunteers and seemed Well at home in the brigade. There was no sign that she's actually one of the new members after only joining a few months ago. Sue always knew she wanted to help prfs but she didn't know the best way.

Sue Brodie 14:35 We've lived in the area for quite a while and I've thought about joining but when we first moved to the air, it seemed like women were making sandwiches and I didn't want to do that bit but after the fires came through a one to make a difference and I wanted to it was really frustrating not knowing what I should be doing.

Doug Dingwall 14:57 Sue was left understandably shaken by the fire. Sue Brodie 15:00 I still get goosebumps actually, when I think about the sound of choppers, because that's like being in a war zone. Just hearing that the whole time. That's one thing I thought I'd never ever forget.

Doug Dingwall 15:13 Sue says joining the fire brigade helped her with the anxiety she felt after surviving the Blaze. She'd been having sleepless nights, she constantly checked around her property for flames.

Sue Brodie 15:24 In all honesty only just stopped doing it before I joined the brigade, I get up. And I'd actually walk around just the house bit and make sure that there was no fires. I just checked and see if I could. And it got to the fact that I couldn't sleep. So I was actually sleeping in the spare room and went into the spare room one night and I was lying there and there was a glow. And I thought, there's a fire. And it's on the hill coming towards us. went out and got the binoculars. I was trying to look at it. I couldn't make it out, and I though oh I'm pretty sure it's fire. Went back to bed and I lie there for a minute and I looked up still there. And it looked like it was flickering. And I thought I gotta do something. So I went and woke my husband up and he looked and said it was a house light. And I guess that was anxiety. It was just every night if I saw a house light was like is that is that a fire? If I saw the light of a truck, is that a fire? If I saw a bit of smoke? Is that a fire? I heard a helicopter It was like is that a fire? So yeah,

Doug Dingwall 16:27 The Currowan fire continued through December and new year's eve 2019 it surged, threatening South Coast towns again. Samantha had been in batemans Bay with family, but was evacuated to safety with her kids. It was an experience that left a deep impression

Samantha Walker 16:44 It was 6am in the morning, when it came through on new year's. It was next level terrifying that I haven't really experienced before. And I think being a mother now that added another element of anxiety to it. But also the lack of information coming through the communications, not knowing where the fire was at what direction it was moving in that kind of thing. It also was another motivating factor for me to join just so that I have more knowledge. I feel like the more knowledge I have, the less fearful you will be when you're faced with that kind of situation.

Doug Dingwall 17:20 Sue says joining the Bawley point brigade has helped a feeling control again.

Sue Brodie 17:24 I've learnt so much in a short time, which is amazing. And it's things that you don't think about but you know just all the things like different few different types of fire how fire starts if you can tell that it's an arson fire, what hoses to use for how to like, hose the bottom don't hose up the top, just you know, I feel good.

Eva McDonald 17:47 My name is Eva, and I'm just a BF at the brigade. And then I've been here for like three years now. But I've just only gotten my badge a year ago.

Jet Boone 18:01 I'm Jet Boone, AF at the shed. I've been part of the shed for about two years. But um, you got my BF as well A year ago we got in at the same time.

Doug Dingwall 18:13 Eva McDonald and Jet Boone, yes, Hendrik's daughter, are two ordinary teenage girls. And that part of the future of the Bawley point Brigade, a future, which Charlie Magnussen says is bright because of people like them. Eva was just 16 when the fires hit bit had already been a member of the brigade since 2017.

Eva McDonald 18:33 And they just gotten my BF and I wasn't quite qualified yet. So I'll just come up here every day and go out back around patrolling. So I wasn't really that to other file. But I just helped out in it in the kitchen and restocking the truck.

Doug Dingwall 18:48 What was it like to see your hometown, so under threat? Eva McDonald 18:53 it was pretty crazy. And it was like kind of unexpected. So a lot of us bit sad but it was also good in a way that the community has never been like this place. Yeah, it just brought us all closer

Doug Dingwall 19:08 to fire left an impression on 16 year old Jet as well. Jet Boone 19:12 was very emotional when and like seeing the community like bullet point was just so empty, like not many people and then all the fire is out there tired and trying to help out as much as they could and like protect everything they couldn't as mostly as they could just it's quite emotional seeing it'll happen and stuff as well.

Doug Dingwall 19:32 But the worst ever bushfire season hasn't put Jet off. She's now one of the youngest firefighters to obtain advanced firefighting accreditation. She plans to continue with the brigade beyond high school, which she'll finish next year.

Jet Boone 19:46 Yeah it's something I think about for the future because i'm starting year 12 now thinking what I'm doing a lot of the brigade is something I'm interested in going further in and stuff and helping out further and becoming a leader Maybe one day is something that seems good to do and interesting to do and fun as well.

Doug Dingwall 20:05 Hendrik says getting young people involved is particularly important for volunteer based service like the RFS,

Hendrik Boone 20:11 you do 15 hours in 43 degrees. I'm in my late 40s that really takes a beating. So it is important to have a young stream ready for again, something like this happens. My youngest daughter 12, and I signed up as a cadet some of the other brigades members. So two of my kids. Yeah, I'm very proud of all the people who done it and I'm proud of all the girls who've done it and we should be as Bawley brigade. Very proud of that. And let's hope that in two years time still all those new people are here, because again, we need them.

Doug Dingwall 20:50 Young people like Eva and Jet are going to help small towns and fire prone areas fight against future bushfires with people like them involved, Charlie Magnuson is optimistic.

Charlie Magnusson 21:00 This is a first for a brigade over the last couple of years we've been lucky to have a lot of women join up especially a younger women and a lot of young girls, we've got probably five teenage girls and some teenage boys. They're all just amazing youngsters because I know that their age, I was either playing marbles or just starting to notice the opposite sex. They're out there volunteering and risking their life at these ages to help keep

Tom Melville 21:27 Charlie Magnusson, captain of the Bawley Point Rural Fire Brigade, finishing up that report by Canberra Times journalist Doug Dingwall. That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in two weeks. If you like the podcast please share it with friends and give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts. Everyone has a story to tell, If you'd like to share yours, email voice at aust community media dot com dot a-u... that's voice at aust "a-u-s-t" community media dot com dot a-u. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash voice of real Australia. Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks this week go to John-Paul Moloney and Steve Evans. This is an ACM podcast.

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 8 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.