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Terrey Hills Rural Fire Service
It was 5am on a stiflingly hot New Year’s Eve when members of the Terrey Hills Rural Fire Service were deployed to Bateman’s Bay.
What faced them was a blackened sky lit with flashes of red from a ferocious, kilometres-long fire front.
Matthew Aikins, a firefighter with Terrey Hills Brigade for seven years, says the destruction was beyond anything he’d previously experienced.
“As a firefighter, it’s our gut instinct to go and put out property. But, on that day, you had to save as many houses as you could with the resources you had available,” he recalls.
“Unfortunately, we had to make the horrific decision to leave what was currently burning and defend what hadn’t started burning yet.
“It just goes against all your training, and that’s what really messed with a lot of people’s minds.”
The crew, supported by other Northern Beaches and South Coast firefighters, battled the merciless blaze for more than 12 hours non-stop.
Then, at 5:30pm, the news hit that the Princes Highway connecting Bateman’s Bay to Sydney had to be closed.
The team was stranded at Bateman’s Bay RFS station, and it wasn’t long before all landline, mobile and internet communications were lost.
“At that point, you almost go into a muscle memory thing with all the training you’ve got,” Matt says.
“It’s not until you think about it a day or so later that you think, ‘Oh, that was a scary situation’.”
Scarier still for the relatives of the firefighters left behind in Sydney, of which this journalist is one. If you didn’t work it out from the last name, Matt is my brother.
“It’s completely understandable when family and friends get worried,” Matt says.
“You need to understand that most RFS brigades, especially on the Northern Beaches, train week in, week out for something like this to happen.”
State MP for Manly
It was witnessing the anguish of close friend and fellow NSW Liberal Andrew Constance, MP for Bega, that sparked James Griffin to act.
“It was a very personal connection with someone that was brave enough to be open and public about the impact the bushfires were having on him as a community leader,” Mr Griffin tells Peninsula Living.
“The more I had a look around our local community here in Manly, the more I got the sense that others like me wanted to do something.”
This feeling spurred Mr Griffin to ring around local hotels and businesses to see what his community could do to help.
In a matter of hours, four of Manly’s top hotels – Q Station, The Sebel Manly Beach, Novotel Manly Pacific and Quest Serviced Apartments – had each donated 20 nights’ accommodation for Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers and their families that had lost their homes during the bushfire crisis.
Thanks to the Manly Chamber of Commerce, these firefighters will each be provided with a ‘welcome pack’ upon arriving in Manly, including vouchers for massages, drinks, dinners and free gym access.
“It’s a remarkable thing what these businesses have done,” says Mr Griffin.
“It’s been a difficult summer for a lot of them because the normal flow of tourists that we would have had were impacted by the fires.
“I think it speaks to their generosity and their empathy for their fellow Australians.”
Nathanael Lo, Mikey Dummer, Damian Cheung and Alex Davidson
The ‘Be Natural’ String Quartet
As the news of the devastating bushfires flooded television screens, local long-time friends and string players Nathanael, Mikey, Damian and Alex felt compelled to help.
“We had seen and heard many horrific stories on the news about Kangaroo Island’s wild animals, the many houses burnt down by the fires and the few firefighters who lost their lives saving the environment from these bushfires,” the boys tell Peninsula Living.
“At one point we thought there was no end to this disaster.
“We all decided unanimously that we should contribute to our local community.”
The 12-year-old Sydney Grammar School students had recently formed a string quartet to earn pocket money over the school break and decided to use their talents to raise funds for the dedicated RFS volunteers.
After busking for just an hour and a half on Manly Corso, they had raised more than $1,000 for the cause.
“We hope the RFS benefit from our little contribution to a colossal natural disaster,” the quartet says.
The boys say it’s important for young people to get out in the community and actively support the causes they care about.
“Young people can sometimes see issues with a clearer mind than adults, and as our generation are the future of our planet, we need to act on these situations urgently!”
Davidson Rural Fire Service
The 21 December will be a day forever marked in the minds of the residents of Balmoral, a small town in NSW Southern Highlands.
As a massive southerly wind change blew through the town just after 5pm, firefighters that had been battling ardently against the catastrophic Wattle Creek firestorm knew they faced a lost cause.
“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” Fiona Johnson, long-time firefighter with Davidson Rural Fire Brigade tells Peninsula Living.
“The way the fire was behaving was unbelievable. We literally couldn’t do anything.”
Fiona was on the ground that day, assisting as the offsider for a strike team leader, logging radio calls, passing on radio messages and driving the fire truck.
With the trucks already low on water from keeping the monstrous blaze at bay, Fiona says all attention was turned to protecting Balmoral RFS station once it was realised that the entire town was under threat.
The station had become a makeshift refuge for many of the town’s locals and protecting life became the main priority.
“In that situation, you switch into that operational mode of, ‘You’ve got to get the job done and you’ve got to keep an eye out for your crews’,” Fiona explains.
“It’s after that fact, after it’s all happened, that you start thinking, ‘That was insane’.”
As a result of her efforts as a strike team offsider and a personnel officer, responsible for organising and coordinating the deployment of Davidson’s 100 front-line firefighters, Fiona was awarded 2020 Davidson Woman of the Year.
Having served on the brigade for 17 years, Fiona says the support of the Northern Beaches community this past season was extraordinary.
“The Northern Beaches community in general has been contributing to all the brigades and trying to find ways to support the members.”
“The outpouring has been mindboggling, to be honest.”