How heroes saved Peregian from a wall of flames
STARING down a 70m high wall of flames amid "fire tornadoes" and an unprecedented ember storm, firefighters who took on the Peregian bushfire say their proudest moment was sparing the Sunshine Coast township from destruction.
The fire forced hundreds of people to evacuate and was an early warning of the destruction this bushfire season would wreak on NSW and Victoria. It was a week of hellfire, with blazes also breaking out in Stanthorpe and the Gold Coast hinterland.
Two firefighters who were in the thick of it at Peregian have spoken for the first time about what they saw on that chaotic night in September.
Noosa Heads station officer Rob Frey was on the third fire truck that arrived on scene as an inferno bore down on the town.
"I vividly remember … a wall of fire coming towards us," he said. "In some areas, coming through some of the vegetation, it was up to 70 metres in the sky. A few fire tornadoes coming through, then it would calm down for a while and kick up again."
A ferocious ember storm was threatening to raze homes located blocks away from the fire front.
Molten hot embers of bark from large trees floated in the sky and ignited "roaring" spotfires where they landed. Reports were coming through of multiple homes on fire.
"It was that dark and the ember attack was that intense that literally 10 metres away you couldn't tell whether homes were on fire or not," Mr Frey said. "It was only once you actually ran, almost into the flames, to have a look you saw the actual structure was intact, but the patio and the fences are on fire.
"When I turned up to one location, where it was reported that 20 units were on fire, I vividly remember looking down the street to my left and all of the wheelie bins were on fire due to embers.
"I remember thinking 'now that's unbelievable' and these are only spotfires, if they're given time to get going they will catch houses on fire."
With little time to spare, crews scrambled to control the ember attack. It was a chaotic scene, with many people still evacuating and emergency service vehicles pouting in.
"Staff did an unbelievable job, working in really hot, thick hazardous, smoky, dangerous conditions," Mr Frey said.
Above them 11,000 volt power lines were burning through and threatening to come down. "Make no bones about it, this is what we are trained for, this is what we do for a living. But nevertheless the conditions were quite extreme," the firefighter said.
As one house ignited, firefighters were told that its owner - 90-year-old Pam Murphy - could still be inside.
Two crews rushed in to find the she had already evacuated.
Sadly, her home of 40 years was lost to the flames.
As the ember storm was brought under control, a new threat opened up in bushland by the beach. In had the potential to "roar up" all the way to the Sunshine Beach community 7km north.
Firefighters knocked it over, but now the main fire had joined another blaze and a wall of fire was heading toward Peregian Beach.
"That's where we sort of made our stand to protect the houses and the businesses along there," Mr Frey said.
"We couldn't do back-burning, the conditions didn't allow for that. We couldn't have any aircraft in the sky because they don't fly at night.
"So we had resources that we basically set up and waited for the fire to come to us."
As the blaze approached, firefighters took to the balconies of homes in Woodland Drive. They used large, 64mm hoses to douse the flame area to cool it down.
This allowed crews on the ground to get in and extinguish it. The tactic worked and the fire did not break past Woodland Drive.
"That was done by an unbelievable effort of both urban and rural fire service personnel sort of standing shoulder to shoulder," Mr Frey said.
Maroochydore Inspector Cameron Herbert said it was an experience he would never forget. "There was some heart-stopping moments where we were thinking this could be really bad," Mr Herbert said.
"We haven't experienced that velocity and ferocity of a fire front coming through that quickly in that high residential location where a lot of people are living.
"What remained with me was the professionalism of everybody I worked with, the permanent firefighters and rural firefighters, everyone, working together in a fairly chaotic situation.
"It was an amazing effort that potentially could have been much worse."