‘Nothing can take away the pain we all feel’
Two volunteer NSW firefighters who died when a tree fell into the path of their tanker are fathers of young children born just two days apart.
Geoffrey Keaton, 32, joined the NSW Rural Fire Service in 2006 and was the deputy captain of the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade in western Sydney and a former member of the Plumpton Brigade.
Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, joined in 2003 and was also a member of the Horsley Park Brigade.
Geoff and his partner Jess have a son, Harvey, and Andrew has a daughter, Charlotte, with his partner Mel. Both children are 19 months old and were born within two days of each other.
"They are at a loss," NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said of the pair's families. Christmas is five days away.
"They're in extraordinary shock and natural despair at the enormity of what's confronting them and to try and comprehend the tragedy."
Geoff and Andrew were travelling in a truck convoy near the town of Buxton southwest of Sydney late on Thursday when a tree fell, causing the tanker to roll off the road.
Both were killed. Three other firefighters were injured but managed to free themselves from the wreckage and were taken to hospital.
In a tragic coincidence, Geoff's father John was working on the mega blaze at Gospers Mountain northwest of Sydney while his son was at the Green Wattle Creek fire.
The Keaton family, Mr Fitzsimmons noted, has a long family tradition of volunteering.
"Both of these men were very well respected, they were very close, they're a close-knit brigade, they're a very community-focused brigade, they work together, socialise together, they're very interactive together," he said.
The deaths had shocked the RFS "to the core", Mr Fitzsimmons said. "They're ordinary, everyday individuals - like you and I - that go out and simply want to serve and protect and make a difference in their local community and they don't ever go out in the knowledge that they might not come home from that shift," he said.
Tributes were flowing on the NSW RFS Facebook page on Friday for the two firefighters, while the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade page posted a poem ending with "forever in hearts, always in our memories".
"This is heartbreaking," said one post. "The death of 'brothers' on active duty has, and always will, rock me to the core," said another.
Gary Tyrer, the brother-in-law of one of Mr O'Dwyer, said: "He loved being in the RFS. Feel sad for his wife and little girl and my wife and her parents. Sad day."
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons praised firefighters who went straight to the aid of their colleagues and stayed until the vehicle had been taken away by police.
"Not only did we lose two firefighters, and saw some injured, but we saw a remarkable response from their colleagues," he said.
Tributes from family and friends have also started to pour for the two fireys including from fellow firefighter Daniel Knox who paid tribute to his friend Mr O'Dwyer and said: "To memories of a lifetime."
Another friend Craig O'Loughlin said: "Two heroes, two family men and two mates. Never forgotten. Vale Andrew and Geoff. Died heroes, and great mates to everyone."
Christine Clarke, 63, said Mr Keaton's wife Jess and their son Harvey would be shattered following his death.
"It's very sad - they're a young couple starting out, one child," she said.
"He was really friendly … my husband had a heart attack and he said 'if you want anything I'll help out'.
Ms Clarke said Mr Keaton had been close friends with Mr O'Dwyer before their deaths because their children were similar ages.
"It was his mate in the cab that passed away as well, their kids were born roughly the same time," she said.
NSW Rural Fire Service Association president Brian McDonough said the firefighting fraternity was in mourning for the pair.
"Our members know that what we do can be dangerous, but nothing can take away the pain we all feel when facing such terrible loss," Mr McDonough said in a statement on Friday.
A Go Fund Me fundraising page has been established for their families. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority's Steve Warrington said his state's firefighting community joined their NSW counterparts in mourning the deaths. More than 100 Victorian firefighters are helping with the NSW effort.
Woolworths NSW/ACT general manager Michael Mackenzie said the supermarket has been left "deeply saddened" by the death of their employee Mr O'Dwyer and that their "hearts go out" to his family and friends during the difficult time.
"Andrew was a much loved member of the Woolworths team, whose generosity of spirit and commitment to volunteering touched the lives of many in the community. He will be sorely missed," Mr Mackenzie said.
"Our teams have made contact with his family and are offering any assistance we can. We're also offering our support to his colleagues in the RFS and to his team members at our Fairfield Heights store, who are understandably devastated by the news."
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the deaths of the volunteer firefighters was having a ripple effect in their communities and the firefighting fraternity. Flags will be flown at half-mast throughout NSW on Friday.
"These two brave young men who lost their lives represent, for us, the thousands and thousands of volunteers on the ground today and tomorrow and in the days coming who put their own life, their own safety on the line to protect others," Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would be returning to Sydney as soon as possible after the deaths of the firefighters, whom he described as "among our most courageous Australians".
Also on Thursday, three firefighters were also treated for burns after their truck at the Green Wattle Creek blaze was enveloped by flames. Fire and Rescue NSW duty commander Inspector Kernin Lambert had described the bushfires conditions as deadly.
"Around the Balmoral village, we had two fire fronts come together and they merged. We were experiencing firestorm-type conditions," Mr Lambert told the ABC.
The Green Wattle Creek blaze remained at emergency warning level early on Friday, along with the huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney. The neighbouring Kerry Ridge blaze and a fire on the NSW South Coast at Currowan were downgraded to a "watch and act" alert.
Insp Lambert said the Green Wattle Creek fire developed rapidly before bearing down on the village of Balmoral.
Crews faced winds over 100km/h and 60m-high flame fronts, stoking a fire so fierce it sucked the oxygen out of the air.
The NSW RFS officially says 20 homes may have been lost but Mr Rogers acknowledged there are reports 40 buildings were destroyed.