IN DEPTH

Everyday heroes: Meet firefighters from FRNSW and RFS Riverina crews who fought to stop NSW burning

Imagine being shrouded in smoke, your eyes stinging with the dust, the raging heat pricking at your skin, the protective gear weighing you down - all while you are trying to battle a wall of flames.

That's what firefighters from the region faced when they travelled to the New England, coastal and metropolitan regions of Sydney as catastrophic conditions wreaked havoc.

In recent weeks, Riverina crews from both Fire and Rescue NSW and the Rural Fire Service have been sending men and women to different parts of the state to boost firefighting efforts as multiple bushfires ravaged the grounds. The Rural Fire Service NSW on Friday morning confirmed more than 250 homes had been destroyed in a week, with almost 90 damaged. Some 480 outbuildings and 18 facilities have also been razed.

Rob Thomas, the captain of the Euberta Rural Fire Brigade, has been up north twice in recent weeks. He said that the responsibilities changed from day to day, depending on what they were faced with.

"We were doing assets protection so looking after houses, bridges - because there is a lot of wooden bridges so if they burn out communities are trapped," he said. "We have been putting in back burning, bringing aircraft in to bomb targets, so we have been pretty diverse."

RED HOT: Rob Thomas captures what his crew are up against at the Kangawalla and Liberation Trail Fires near Glenreagh.

RED HOT: Rob Thomas captures what his crew are up against at the Kangawalla and Liberation Trail Fires near Glenreagh.

Captain Thomas said an average stint saw the crew work a 12-hour shift for three days. At one point, his team stayed an extra day to lend a hand when it was needed.

"Everyone in our strike steam stuck their hand up to stay the extra day," he said. "We were needed up there, and we were more than ready to help."

Captain Thomas said it is tough knowing some homes were lost, but he holds onto the knowledge that his work and the work of his crew made an impact. He said there are no words to describe the magnitude of the fiery blaze they faced.

"It's draining because one moment you're just fighting the fire and the next you just feel overwhelmingly hot," he said.

Captain Thomas said communities that have been dealing with blazes for days on end are "on edge".

"You see their emotions, they are stressed, and they just want an end to it, but they are so grateful," Captain Thomas said. "Glenrose is a tiny community, and when we were there on Tuesday, they donated so much food and drink to the fire station.

"These are people who are struggling, but if they can do it, they will give it to you."

Callum Murdoch, senior deputy captain of the Currawarna Rural Fire Brigade, has left his work, his family and friends four times to lend a hand to other communities.

On one of his initial trips, Mr Murdoch battled a raging blaze which was eventually contained thanks to the tireless efforts of crews. But, after he left, the fire flared up again, and three people were killed - knowledge that Mr Murdoch has struggled with.

"The fire in the Kangawalla area broke out again during the week, and there were three deaths," he said. "I was in Coffs Harbour at that point. It was tough to hear that the fire you thought was out, was not out, and three people have been killed."

Mr Murdoch has been fighting fires since he was 12. About to turn 30 now, he has seen a lot in that time. But only last year's Gladstone fires could compare to the mammoth job he faced in recent weeks. Thankfully, the camaraderie between crews kept him going.

ALL SMILES: Members of local Fire and Rescue NSW teams make sure to keep each other laughing even when the going gets tough.

ALL SMILES: Members of local Fire and Rescue NSW teams make sure to keep each other laughing even when the going gets tough.

"Most of us have worked together before, so we have all got a great friendship," he said. "It doesn't take much for us to all click. Seeing the people up there being so generous, even though they did not have to, was incredible."

Mr Murdoch said so many community members would hug the firies who arrived, relieved to see reinforcements to help save their homes and livelihoods.

"These are people just like us, and I want to make sure that they are safe," he said.

Deputy captain Murdoch said so many community members would hug the firies who arrived, relieved to see reinforcements to help save their homes and livelihoods.

"These are people just like us, and I want to make sure that they are safe," he said.

FRNSW Inspector Daryl Manson, the Wagga duty commander and strike team leader, has left the region twice to help out.

"As a strike team leader, we get 15 or 17 people, and we take them away, and we are parents for that week," he joked.

Inspector Manson said his crews were mainly tasked with property protection as their tankers are equipped to deal with that scenario. As the man in charge of the team, the biggest challenge was keeping his team motivated for extended periods.

"You have waves of different emotions," Inspector Manson said. "At one point, we were tasked to go through houses to check for any dead bodies as there were missing person reports, but at the last minute, we were tasked to something else.

"If we had done that, we would have had people coming back a lot different."

But, there were moments when the Aussie spirit shone through, or when the team bonded over something small that made the hard slogs all worth it.

"We had been out backburning since 8am, it was a lot of physical work, and at 9pm they tasked us to property protection to save a house," Inspector Manson said.

"The property owner came out and said 'if you can handle it until midnight, me and my two sons can patrol from midnight until 9am'.

"This dad has been dealing with it for days, and even just driving through the country it was dry, and the cows and sheep were skinny, and here he is just offering to do it himself."

Another moment that brought the team together was at the Glenn Innes Correctional Facility.

BLACKENED SKIES: Smoke rises above the horizon from the Kangawalla and Liberation Trail Fires.

BLACKENED SKIES: Smoke rises above the horizon from the Kangawalla and Liberation Trail Fires.

"A wallaby came into the shed, it seemed timid, so one of the firefighters gave it some water, but it didn't seem in a good way, so we tried to give it some oxygen," he said.

"Then it came well, which was great."

Inspector Manson said the strength, determination and unwavering generosity of the communities and volunteer firefighters was a testament to the Aussie spirit.

Captain Steven Beck of the Turvey Park FRNSW Brigade has been up twice in the last month, with one of the trucks left up north and crews rotating in and out.

"Our primary tasking has been property protection," he said. "We also consolidated fire lines. There was a minimal water supply so we couldn't use any water supplies so we were using whatever we could pull up out of creeks, so the outside of the trucks are filthy."

Captain Beck said another challenge was the terrain which, unlike the Riverina, is mountainous and rocky.

He added that a significant part of their ability to put out the fires or control them was their working relationship with the RFS.

"The RFS ancillary ladies at Tyringham were incredible," he said. "They have been looking after us for weeks, and they made sure we were fed. They were all daughters to me."

Captain Beck said there was another woman who ran a coffee van in Coffs Harbour who made the trip and was giving the emergency services free coffees to help keep them going.

"The people up there have been putting up with this for months now, and they are still cheerful and still trying to do what they can," he said. "Considering the hardships they have gone through, they are incredible."

This story Everyday heroes: Meet local firies who fought to stop NSW burning first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.