Fear plays part as firies battle blaze
THICK black smoke billows through every doorway, roof panels crash down, barrels of boiling hydraulic oil explode and voices urgently relay instructions over small radios.
As the firefighters run out hoses from their tankers, they look up at three storeys of flames rolling across a shed at Big River Timbers with a sense of fear.
"Absolutely you're scared," Grafton Fire Rescue NSW station officer Col Drayton said.
"You've got to be scared because that makes you make a safe plan of action. If you're not scared then you're putting yourself and others in danger.
"Once you are there though, you are there for that job and someone has got to do it and you have to decide that it's you.
"And that's when the training kicks in straight away and you act, there is no room for hesitation."
The initial contact for Wednesday's fire was a phone call to 000 relayed to the Grafton station. The call did not prepare the firefighters for what was to come.
"From our first callout we were told we were heading to a large bushfire at Junction Hill," Mr Drayton said.
"The guys were here within five minutes and both trucks as well as the South Grafton truck headed out."
As the firefighters drove closer to the black smoke plume coming from Junction Hill, local knowledge took over and a line of people standing on Trenayr Rd alerted them to a distinctly different situation.
Upon arrival at the timber mill they were met by a staff member who briefed them on the emergency unfolding inside the sheds.
"That initial information was absolutely vital. Is everyone out? Are we looking for anyone else? Where is the fire? The way that information was relayed in those first few minutes to us was critical," Mr Drayton said.
"And they also told us the power had been cut which was hugely important to us as we can't commit anyone to the fire with the power on."
At first sight the shed presented a fearful sight.
"The view from straight down the front just looked like a furnace," Mr Drayton said.
"People assume that fire just burns up but it's rolling around the whole thing.
"The scale of it was made obvious by the fact you looked around and it took up the whole view of the three-storey shed; it was just all fire."
After they had taken up positions around the blaze, the first priority for the firefighters was to protect staff battling the fire and getting them out of the building. Then they were able to begin the task of containment.
"We decided on a defensive approach which means we're going to contain the fire and then assess it before we decide whether to attack the fire," Mr Drayton said.
"We have to ascertain whether we have enough people on the ground, enough water for the job and are we willing to commit firefighters to the blaze safely.
"This all happens within the first few minutes."
By this stage, reinforcements from Woolgoolga and Lismore and RFS units from across the Valley had joined the fight, with the numbers on the ground swelling to more than 40 firefighters and 10 tankers.
"A concern was the areas forward of the fire and the two buildings to the side with the fire encroaching upon buildings on the right," Mr Drayton said.
"There comes a point where you feel that you have to attack it, and if not you're going to lose it. You decide at that moment whether it's worth giving it a go."
With a plan of attack established, the brigades moved forward and committed to shrinking the fire in particular areas, all the while firefighters constantly assessing the perimeter to check the effect each effort is having, and making sure each stream is going to a pinpointed part of the structure.
As their efforts inc-reased, however, the roof began to cave in and there were explosions created by hydraulic oil boiling in tanks and the threat of gas tanks and a boiler somewhere in the inferno made it like a battleground.
"The sheer size of the exposed flame, it made you feel very small," Mr Drayton said.
"It was an enormous wall of flame with a tiny fireman in front of it. It's noisy, and it's moving.
"And the people in there are working hard, really hard."
Vital to the efforts of the fire crew was a timber mill staff member named Tony who guided firefighters through the facility, pointing out crucial parts of the layout to them and letting them know where the fingers of the fire were spreading to, and where vital machinery was located.
"Without him, there were points where the problem would've escalated," Mr Drayton said.
"He was able to point out conveyor belts that were taking the fire up, the location of woodchip stores and fine dust, and also let us
know of a pump maintaining the integrity of the boiler which allowed us to operate more securely inside.
"That specialist person with us was absolutely valuable to the operation. We really didn't have enough people to do everything at once so we had to choose what was the most effective at the time."
The attack moved slowly, with crews often having to backtrack on the command of their captain to extinguish fires burning behind them, areas not reached by the flames but ignited by the extreme heat of the blaze.
"It seemed to take an age, and for at least 30-40 min-utes we were at a real stalemate but slowly the fire starts to come back down and our efforts are having some effect," Mr Drayton said.
With the fire showing signs of abating, the crews focused their attack on specific areas of the blaze, the brief respite allowing more time to assess each spot and attack the various fingers of the fire in the fragile structure.
"The whole time people are feeling their way and even when they've gained some metres on the fire it's not until it's reduced to 30% of its initial size that we are comfortable in their move," Mr Drayton said.
Even with the initial fire front knocked down, crews remain on high alert for another three hours, inspecting each area to make sure there's no threat.
The majority of the crews leave at 6pm, nearly eight hours after the initial call was received.
A single crew is stationed to keep vigil on the smouldering wreck.
Back at the Grafton fire station the following day, Mr Drayton said that success in a battle against a fire is a hard thing to judge.
"It was a very dynamic fire, it wasn't just the one fire everyone could see. There were maybe six different incidents," Mr Drayton said.
"Our goal is to have it that it doesn't get any worse than when you get there. It's obvious you're not going to save certain sections but you draw a line around it and it try to make sure it doesn't come outside that line."
Reflecting on the experience, Mr Drayton said it was the community and team of people that enabled them to perform their duty.
"The Fire & Rescue, RFS and the staff that were all there, without them I don't know what the outcome would've been," he said.
"Dennis Pye and his South Grafton team were exceptional through the whole operation, and the RFS were also essential to what we did.
"A water tanker they brought in came just at the right time as we were just about to run out of water on the line we were using out the back and the firefighting they did down the right-hand side allowed us to enter the building.
"The ambulance was there the whole time, they're always there when we wear breathing apparatus and the police were a huge help in crowd control, constantly in contact with us to move people around and see what people could do.
"The staff and management were a great help also. They evacuated calmly, very orderly and we had all the information we needed at the vital times."
And for his crew, the firefighter of 21 years gave his highest praise.
"You can certainly see a sense of satisfaction in your crew because that's the time you can see they're using their skills," Mr Drayton said.
"I've got a bigger appreciation for them because I'm a permanent firefighter, these guys are retained and they're putting in because they love to do it and they are working really hard and working for the community despite the danger in it for them."
As for the fire itself, Mr Drayton said that there were some fires that would be talked about in the years to come.
"That one will definitely be in there," he said. "Definitely in the top five."