Officer feared fire crew perished

FOR three terrible minutes, Wayne Parry thought he'd lost them to the firestorm.

As a super-heated tornado of flame swept over the nine firemen and one woman, the Rockhampton Station Officer heard the call he hoped he would never hear again crackling over the radio.

It was faint but unmistakeable and despite the intense heat a cold shiver ran down his spine: “Red, Red, Red”.

“It's the code we use to call for assistance when lives are threatened,” said Wayne, reliving the heart-stopping horror of Saturday afternoon in Rockonia Road, Koongal, when he feared the worst.

At the end of the street the 10 firefighters had been overwhelmed by a wall of smoke and flame travelling at up to 100 kmh.

The 21-year veteran had seen the same phenomenon only once before, on the fringe of a bushfire in Victoria.

From his vantage point further down the street he watched and prayed. “Because I had witnessed a firestorm before I knew what was coming and when I heard the Red, Red, Red call, I could imagine what was happening.

“The fire front was so intense, and was advancing so quickly, that it was creating its own mini-atmosphere. The temperature at the edge of the flames would have been about 1000 centigrade. There were tornadoes of fire spinning wildly up to 100 metres in the air. And the super-heated black smoke made it impossible to see anything.”

The 10 officers had been preparing to tackle the flames as they approached the last house in Rockonia Road when, without warning, the blaze intensified and raced towards them.

“It was like being hit by a rugby team. Even from a distance the noise generated by the firestorm was like a squadron of jets taking off. It was three minutes of hell before we regained radio contact,” said Wayne.

“At that moment I felt like a parent who had lost a small child in a crowded shopping centre. I just didn't know if I would see them alive again.

“The radios fell silent in response to the call, but there was nothing any of us could do except wait and hope for the best.”

But the crews, full-time Rockhampton urban firefighters and rural volunteers from Keppel Sands, Alton Downs and Burnett Heads near Bundaberg, knew exactly what to do to protect themselves.

They retreated to safe zones, covered-up and allowed the firestorm to wash over them.

“It was 150 centigrade at ground level and fire had blocked their escape. If they had panicked it's likely they would have been killed or scorched, but they were saved by their sheer bloody professionalism,” said Wayne.

“I'm grateful that they were able to identify safe zones, that they had been properly trained and that they stuck so perfectly to their training. It was as brutal as it gets.”

And at the height of the drama was an act of heroism he says almost defies belief.

“There were two aircraft and a helicopter providing air support to the crews on the ground.

“In the spotter plane, Barry Semple was directing air operations. There was so much smoke along the fire front he couldn't find the crews on the ground to protect them.

“So his pilot flew blind down into the thick of it to punch a hole in the smoke for the following aircraft to water bomb the area.

“They were what we call Hail Mary drops, cooling the atmosphere. Those guys saved our skins so many times on Saturday and Sunday.”

Wayne also praised the community effort and the calm professionalism of the communications team.

“They were a young team and they were dealing with multiple Triple 0 calls and all the requests from our crews. They were magnificent.

“But it was a fantastic community effort. I can't praise highly enough the residents for the way they reacted to the warnings.

“More houses would have been destroyed if they had not been so good in protecting their homes. Through it all, not one person in any crew took a backward step. Every firefighter gave their all and residents with their hoses did the rest.”

He said it was teamwork that has saved the homes and Lakes Creek School and he was proud that despite the dangers, no one had been seriously hurt.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Gallant was in Koongal to show his support for the 80 or so firefighters in the front line. And at one point he joined the effort, using a garden hose to douse flames.

Even from a distance the noise generated by the firestorm was like a squadron of jets taking off

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