FIRE STORM: RFS captain recalls night hell paid a visit

NYMBOIDA Rural Fire Service captain Paul Johnston has fought bush fires for decades. Like the thousands of interstate and international firefighters who have assisted local crews battle ongoing blazes in the Clarence Valley over the pass four months, he has travelled to lend support in some of the country's worst bushfire disasters.

But nothing could prepare him for the night of Friday, November 8, 2019, when hell itself arrived on the doorstep of his own community.

"I think it's just where your training and experience kicks in - you don't think, you do," Capt Johnson said.

"That's what that night was all about. Crews came in from all over the place to assist, everyone scrambling, but doing.

"There were homes that should've gone when we couldn't get to them, but for whatever reason, the nuances of weather, wind and topography, some were saved, some were lost."

The horrendous conditions that night resulted in at least 14 emergency warnings simultaneously active along the North Coast - an unprecedented situation for the NSW RFS.

Nymboida was one of several communities left devastated by the firestorms, including Wytaliba, also located in the Clarence Valley on the upper reaches of the Mann River near Glen Innes, where two people died.

Christmas is a special time for most of us. It's a family time, and involves a bunch of small traditions that add to the festive cheer.

This year, reflect for a moment what we take for granted.

Before and after photos of the damage done to Nymboida after bushfire devastated the village.
Before and after photos of the damage done to Nymboida after bushfire devastated the village. Theo Van Den Berg

When you wrap the presents and place them under the tree adorned with decorations you've accumulated over many years. When Santa visits personalised Christmas stockings while the kids are snug in their own comfy beds.

When mum brings out that delicious roast perfected from years of mastery in her kitchen, in the home that has housed a lifetime of Christmas memories.

 

Before and after photo of Sammie Dobbs Frickers Road holiday home that was destroyed by Nymboida fires.
Before and after photo of Sammie Dobbs Frickers Road holiday home that was destroyed by Nymboida fires.

 

Reflect for a moment that these small things we take for granted will change drastically for hundreds of Clarence Valley residents this year.

Of the 724 homes lost in NSW to bushfires this season, 128 are in the Clarence Valley.

About half of those were from the catastrophic inferno that swept through the Nymboida district on that fateful Friday night.

The Daily Examiner, 2GF and Grafton District Services Club have joined forces to drive the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal between now and December 16.
The Daily Examiner, 2GF and Grafton District Services Club have joined forces to drive the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal between now and December 16.

Nymboida residents who have lost everything will be among those on the receiving end of your generosity when you give to the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal, which The Daily Examiner is helping to drive.

GDSC general manager Nathan Whiteside, Nymboida RFS captain Paul Johnston and The Daily Examiner editor Bill North joined 2GF presenter Richie Williamson on air to launch the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal on Monday, 25th November, 2019.
GDSC general manager Nathan Whiteside, Nymboida RFS captain Paul Johnston and The Daily Examiner editor Bill North joined 2GF presenter Richie Williamson on air to launch the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal on Monday, 25th November, 2019. Jenna Thompson

When we launched the appeal, Nymboida RFS captain Paul Johnston told 2GF radio presenter Richie Williamson he had never seen anything like what he and many others encountered that evening.

"It was frightening," Capt Johnston said. "More so for those that we couldn't get to, who stopped to defend their homes, with no hope of getting help to them. I can't even imagine what they were going through.

Photos taken by local firefighter
Photos taken by local firefighter "Grubby" White fighting fires in the Coutts region.

"What it came down to, we weren't trying to put out the fire, we were just trying to save homes. Just going from house to house, and we weren't able to get to all of them.

"So in the end it was just putting yourself between the fire and the homes and hoping for the best.

"The radiant heat being pushed by those winds is what does a lot of the damage, and the spotting. The wind sending embers and burning twigs and branches up to a couple of kilometres ahead of the fire front, that was the thing that really struck.

"I think, for me personally, the heroes are everybody in the Nymboida community. They got together, they're shoulder to shoulder, helping each other and doing. Not waiting for somebody to put something in their hand or do the job for them, they're doing it themselves. I believe the community of Nymboida are the heroes in this one."

Nymboida residents co-ordinate distribution of donated goods in the canoe centre shed.
Nymboida residents co-ordinate distribution of donated goods in the canoe centre shed. Tim Howard

The Daily Examiner, GDSC, Farmer Lou's, Bowlo Sport & Leisure Yamba, Maclean Bowling Club and Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis' office in Prince St, Grafton are all drop-off points for donations of non-perishable food items, toiletries and unwrapped gifts until December 16. These items will be distributed by the Salvation Army.

Nymboida residents who have lost everything will be among those on the receiving end of your generosity when you give to the Clarence Christmas Bushfire Appeal, which The Daily Examiner is helping to drive.

Residents spoke of almost complete darkness by 4pm as bushfires raged around Nymboida on Friday, 8th November, 2019. In nearby Grafton, eerie scenes created a natural 'orange filter' looking south across the Clarence River in the direction of Nymboida.
Residents spoke of almost complete darkness by 4pm as bushfires raged around Nymboida on Friday, 8th November, 2019. In nearby Grafton, eerie scenes created a natural 'orange filter' looking south across the Clarence River in the direction of Nymboida. Grafton Street Orienteering