Ten years ago on Saturday, 7th of February, 2009, as Victorians faced a fire tragedy of unspeakable sadness and horror, fire fighters and and a small bush community, on the Far South Coast of NSW came close to facing their own hell.
East Coast Radio journalist Tonia Liosatos, was part of the communications team working out of the fire emergency headquarters in Bega, and recalls how an arsonist tested the strength and courage of fire crews that day.
Everyone knew it was going to be a dreadful day. High winds were forecast and the temperature was expected to reach the high forties. A large bushfire had been burning on the sacred mountain, known as Jingera Rock, near Wyndham, for some weeks. It had been declared a Section 44 emergency, and more recently another fire, near Nerrigunda in the Eurobodalla, had been threatening properties.
However it was the unknown that was of the most concern. The worst thing that could happen on this kind of day was for a new bushfire to start.
Because of conditions National Parks, and Rural Fire Service crews, were not permitted to go up to the Jingera Rock fire and began the day on high alert at the Wyndham oval. Nestled within forested mountains, Wyndham village is one of the most picturesque in the Bega Valley. Somewhere you can still escape the rat race. It's 27 kilometres south of Candelo and 36 kilometres west of Pambula. Between Candelo and Wyndham is Myrtle Mountain, home to a number of bush properties hidden from view down rugged dirt tracks.
The atmosphere within the incident control room at the fire emergency headquarters was strained, the dedicated team made up of 'Parkies', RFS and State Forests, as they were then known, watched the temperature gauge climb, (it was to hit a high of 47); monitored the radio and answered phone calls.
At about 2pm, the National Parks and Wildlife Service's divisional commander, George Malolakis, who was on standby with the crews at Wyndham, was on the radio to the incident control room when he received the news no one had wanted to hear.
"I was calling fire control on the radio and these people pulled up next to me, and they said, 'Do you know about the fire?' And I said 'Yeh out there' pointing south to Jingera Rock, but they said 'No, back there on Kingfisher Road,' on Myrtle Mountain," George explained a few days later.
Reports of the new fire then started coming through. Someone, an arsonist, had lit up on Myrtle Mountain.
"We hit it with everything we had," George said. "If we hadn't held it on Myrtle Mountain Road we would have had our own tragedy, we may have lost houses and lives. Stroudy, [Iain Stroud] was in charge of the RFS crews and they did a big job, all the Parkies did a great job, we stopped it together, but it was very stressful, there were a lot of orders being given and a lot of yelling, it was mayhem. It was only because we were close by at Wyndham and were able to respond quickly that we could contain it."
The Bushfire Bulletin - Journal of the NSW Rural Fire Service reported that, "The fire came dangerously close to life and property. Quick work and direct attack by RFS crews and other agencies assisted by heavy plant was successful in containing this fire."
The next morning, on Sunday the 8th of February, 2009, the terrible news coming out of Victoria, of all the lives lost, was hard to comprehend. We had been so very fortunate.
On the decade anniversary since Black Saturday East Coast Radio remembers the communities, towns, families, victims, emergency workers, and everybody whose lives were changed forever on that day.