NSW honours 65,000 heroes for bushfire bravery
The heroes from the front line of last summer's catastrophic bushfires will today be formally decorated, in one of NSW's largest ever peacetime commemorations.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian will honour the herculean effort of volunteers and service personnel, from firefighters to charity workers and chaplains, who all answered the call when 11,400 fires destroyed 2448 homes and claimed 25 lives.
More than 65,000 people will receive an official NSW Bushfire Emergency Citation, certificate of recognition, commemorative pin and a letter from the Premier acknowledging their contribution and thanking them for their service.
"This citation is thoroughly deserved for the thousands of volunteers and emergency services personnel who put their safety on the line to protect lives and properties," Ms Berejiklian said. "Equally deserving are those recognised who provided critical behind-the-scenes support."
The Premier's letter praises the recipients' selflessness, courage and resilience, saying these had earned them a "special place in the history of our state".
The government will not publicly release the list of recipients, but the families of fallen firefighters Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, from the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade, will receive posthumous citations on behalf of the two men, who died in the Green Wattle Creek fire southwest of Sydney when a falling tree flipped their fire truck.
The Sunday Telegraph can also reveal the number of volunteer firefighters who died in last year's fires has risen to four, with the formal inclusion of Colin Burns, 72, from the Belowra Brigade.
There was confusion about whether Mr Burns was working in the capacity of a NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer or a private property owner when his ute was consumed by fire at his south coast property while attempting to flee to the local fire shed on New Year's Eve.
An RFS investigation has concluded Mr Burns did in fact die while on active duty.
There are recipients from more than 60 organisations and agencies that contributed to the emergency response, including the State Emergency Service, Surf Life Saving NSW, National Parks and Wildlife, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance, St Johns Ambulance, Red Cross and the Bureau of Meteorology.
The certificates of recognition are countersigned by former NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who called the shots throughout the catastrophic fire season.
Thousands of Australians from interstate and more than 300 internationals, including firefighters from Canada, the United States and New Zealand, will also be awarded the citations.
ANDREW O'DWYER AND GEOFFREY KEATON: FIREYS WHO MADE THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Charlotte O'Dwyer will never see her father again, but she will always have his NSW Bushfire Emergency Citation as a lasting reminder of his extraordinary sacrifice - and she also has a "family" of fireys.
Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, was killed alongside his colleague Geoffrey Keaton, 32, at the Green Wattle Creek fire near Buxton when the truck they were travelling in was hit by a falling tree on December 19.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian will today award Mr O'Dwyer and Mr Keaton posthumous NSW Bushfire Emergency Citations for their contributions to the bushfire effort.
Given the whirlwind of memorials and fundraisers following the twin tragedies, it wasn't until the pace of life slowed down during the pandemic that young widow Mel O'Dwyer has been able to properly process her grief.
Her husband's award will bring some solace to the gradually crystallising realisation he will never come home and will never see his daughter's personality blossom.
"Just in the last nine months Charlotte is a completely different person and I can't help but think how he is missing out," Mrs O'Dwyer said.
"If Charlotte does something silly or cheeky, I think 'damn, I wish he was here to see this'.
"Andrew would be proud of how much sass she has."
Charlotte, 2, was born on St Florian's Day - which celebrates the patron saint of firefighters - and is right at home in the Western Sydney Horsley Park fire station.
Brigade captain Darren Nation, 44, was privately worried his brigade would fray under the strain of losing two colleagues and mates, but is relieved and emboldened at the way the volunteers have rallied together.
And they honour a vow made soon after Mr O'Dwyer and Mr Keaton died to become family for Charlotte and for Mr Keaton's little son Harvey.
RFS volunteer Anthony Ciccaldo said Charlotte and Harvey lost their fathers but gained 40 uncles and 20 aunties, referring to the firefighters in the tight-knit brigade.
"We're all family here and we make sure the kids know it," Mr Ciccaldo said.
Mr Nation said: "We've been through just about every emotion you could think of, including trepidation about what comes next, but the brigade has become a stronger and closer unit. We're still together, we didn't disband, no one blamed themselves, and we're ready to get back out there to carry on the boys' legacy."
As a fellow volunteer firefighter, Mrs O'Dwyer said the day her husband's fire truck rolled was just another day "doing his job", but said it was "important" he and Mr Keaton be recognised for making the ultimate sacrifice.
NATHAN BARNDEN: NSWRFS SENIOR DEPUTY CAPTAIN
Firefighter Nathan Barnden still has sleepless nights after a day of pure hell, when his father was consumed by an explosion of fire and he lost his uncle and cousin in the inferno.
The Senior Deputy Captain, 26, who only took a break from three months on the front line to attend family funerals, is deeply scarred from the Black Summer bushfires.
Since the bushfire season ended, Mr Barnden has struggled with insomnia and an unusually short temper.
"It has been a consistently tough battle with mental health but I would jump on that truck again," Mr Barnden said.
"I wish we could have saved one more house or one more life, but it is the way it is.
"There are literally lives, real people who I can look at, who are still here because of my actions."
Those lives include Chris Pauling, her daughter-in-law Jessica Gravener and five of her grandchildren, who Mr Barnden found cowering under a wet blanket in their burning south coast home at Quaama in the early hours of New Year's Eve.
Mr Barnden and fellow firey John Gallagher bundled them into an old Hyundai Terracan SUV - the only vehicle available because every fire truck was defending the Quaama fire station, where between 30 and 50 residents were sheltering for their lives.
The pair went back into the eye of the blaze to save a woman reported trapped.
"We found her in the middle of her driveway, clothes all burned, just covered in ash, and you could tell skin was burned," Mr Barnden said.
"I can remember her eyelashes were melted."
She survived after two weeks on life support.
Mr Barnden's father Clem, a fellow firey, and his crew had been caught out of their truck by a "tornado of fire", so when Nathan saw Clem crying he feared his dad was badly injured.
Instead, Clem had just received a call that Nathan's uncle Robert Salway, 63, and cousin Patrick Salway, 29, had died protecting their farm at Wandella.
"In the middle of hell, after rescuing 13 people, when I found out I lost my uncle and cousin, I just broke down and fell to my knees in the middle of the road while the town burned around me and people were sheltering in the fire station," he said.
The Premier will today award Mr Barnden the NSW Bushfire Emergency Citation.
JUDY HOLDSWORTH: RED CROSS VOLUNTEER
Faced with swelling queues of petrified people covered in soot, Red Cross volunteer Judy Holdsworth could only assure evacuees they were safe.
The 61-year-old retiree opened or helped run five evacuation centres on the south coast at the peak of the bushfire season, for which she will today be awarded a NSW Bushfire Emergency Citation.
Ms Holdsworth's kind eyes and reassurance were often as comforting for frantic evacuees as the lights of a fire truck.
"You can't tell people everything's OK and not to worry because you know most of them are going home to nothing," she said.
"When you have hundreds of elderly people sleeping on floorboards it's devastating, and the hardest thing is not being able to do more.
"There was a state of terror for days, so all you can do is look them in the eye, say 'sit down, you're safe', and offer them whatever services were available."
The speed with which the fires sprung up on the south coast required showgrounds, surf clubs and sports halls to house thousands of evacuees within hours.
There were not enough mattresses or foodstuffs on hand and people with chronic medical conditions arrived without critical medication.
The Bega Showgrounds was bursting at the seams by the time it was equipped to handle the influx, while other evacuees wrongly headed to the locked, vacant and unequipped Bega Indoor Sports Stadium.
In thick smoke in the parking lot, Ms Holdsworth had to let people inside and create an evacuation centre from scratch with the help of one other Red Cross volunteer.
BEL SHEA: RED CROSS WORKER
When a fireball burned the side of Nath Eldridge's face and melted the hose in his hand, the battle to defend their home was lost.
The fire roaring all around Nath and his partner Bel Shea, 37, exploded shortly before 6am on New Year's Eve and the house ignited in an instant.
The couple scampered to their Holden Astra hatch and drove through the firestorm, which had created its own furious weather system - one that broke full-grown gum trees in half.
Tragically, their neighbours in the tiny hamlet of Wandella near Cobargo on the far south coast - Robert Salway, 63, and cousin Patrick Salway, 29 - died defending their property.
The pair headed to Cobargo but the bridge into town was alight, which forced them to travel to Bega Showgrounds, where they lived in a trailer for more than two months.
Bel Shea, 37, still does not have a house of her own but has spent the past six months working for Red Cross Australia helping people put their lives back together.
The charity worker helps bushfire victims claim sorely needed funds donated by generous Australians.
"People have used the money from donors to purchase anything from water tanks and generators to new undies and bras, because a lot of people showed up at the Bega Showgrounds with nothing but a T-shirt and thongs," she said.
"Money is most helpful, so it was just so brilliant Australians were so generous."
The Premier will today award Ms Shea a NSW Bushfire Emergency Citation for helping desperate evacuees despite her own ordeal.