How hero CFA crews survived fire twister

 

It was going to take more than a fire twister to sideline the CFA crew from Kiewa.

On December 30, the five CFA volunteers were sent to protect a home near Walwa as a huge blaze bore down on the state's northeast.

But they were hit with the fiery twister so powerful it lifted their 13.5 tonne truck onto two wheels and catapulted a water tank hundreds of metres through the air.

"It was like the Wizard of Oz and we weren't in Kansas any more," Kiewa brigade captain Aaron Wallace said.

The crew couldn't save the home hit by the twister - the winds ripped the roof off before fire finished the job.

But they protected a string of others that night, and were this week reunited with the grateful residents who wanted to say thanks.

Mr Wallace told the Sunday Herald Sun that the homes saved were the good stories written on a "bad night".

John Anderson, left, and Malcolm Evans, right, thank Kiewa firefighters Danny Cavanagh, Branden Wallace, Paul Hadley, Greg Whorlow and Aaron Wallace. Picture: Simon Dallinger
John Anderson, left, and Malcolm Evans, right, thank Kiewa firefighters Danny Cavanagh, Branden Wallace, Paul Hadley, Greg Whorlow and Aaron Wallace. Picture: Simon Dallinger

It started about 7.30pm when the crew was caught off guard and outside the truck by the swirling wind - something the experienced CFA captain had never seen before.

"You go into survival mode," he said. "For me, that was getting flat on the ground, putting my head in the dirt."

Mr Wallace's 16-year-old son, Branden, was on the back of the truck and sprayed mist over himself as a thin layer of protection, while Paul Hadley crouched beside the tanker's front wheel.

Greg Whorlow still doesn't know exactly where he was but thinks he must have been near the house. He remembers reaching out and touching what felt like a metal wall.

And Danny Cavanagh was stuck in the middle of it, suffering blisters and burns to his face.

"This is the second time I've been in a burn over but this is the first time I thought I wasn't going to make it back to the truck," Mr Wallace said.

"You can't breathe, there is no air whatsoever. You are gasping for air."

After the twister passed, Mr Cavanagh was loaded into an ambulance and the rest of the determined crew back into the truck.

Sherree and Terry Coysh's home was saved by the Tallangatta and Kiewa CFAs but lost the machinery shed. Picture: Simon Dallinger
Sherree and Terry Coysh's home was saved by the Tallangatta and Kiewa CFAs but lost the machinery shed. Picture: Simon Dallinger

They teamed up with a crew from Tallangatta and headed to protect other properties, including Terry and Sherree Coysh's Cudgewa farm of more than 20 years.

Almost all of the 130ha property was burnt but their house now stands as a beacon in the blackened paddocks.

The hay shed, chook shed and its 10 residents were also spared but the machinery shed was razed.

Seven cattle also had to be destroyed in the wake of the fire and another 20 sold because they couldn't be fed.

But Ms Coysh said they were better off than many neighbours - and the CFA boys were to thank.

"How do you even put it into words? Their bravery is beyond belief," she said.

"It was hell on earth what they went in to."

After the fires ripped through - Ms Coysh isn't sure exactly when because the days since have all rolled into one - the crews from Kiewa and Tallangatta headed back to the farm house to check it was still standing.

John Anderson was fighting a fire with a garden hose before the Kiewa CFA tanker arrived and saved his home. Picture: Simon Dallinger
John Anderson was fighting a fire with a garden hose before the Kiewa CFA tanker arrived and saved his home. Picture: Simon Dallinger

Mr Coysh shook their hands and said the only thing he could - "thank you".

"I didn't kiss 'em," he joked. "If we had lost the home, it would have been pretty devastating."

About 6km up the road in Cudgewa's Main St, Malcolm Evans still has a roof over his head with John Anderson's "grandpa flat" untouched out the back of the block.

The Kiewa crew saved their places too.

Mr Anderson had gone to bed that night thinking there was no way the fire would travel 40km to the township, but was woken at 1.15am as it crept over the hill.

He had six garden hoses on hand and ran towards the fire with one when the flames hit the fence.

But he was engulfed in the smoke, lost his bearings and was only able to see his feet when it dawned on him that he "could die here".

Somehow he stumbled out of the smoke as the CFA cavalry arrived.

They were greeted by a small cypress tree in the front yard "going off like a cracker" and flames licking up the house spout.

Malcolm Evans and John Anderson thank the hero fireys with a cold one. Picture: Simon Dallinger
Malcolm Evans and John Anderson thank the hero fireys with a cold one. Picture: Simon Dallinger

"A mate came across from the road - in fact, he was a guy I'd never met - to help me," Mr Anderson said.

"This mate ran down the street where a lot of the trucks were working together and said "there's two old blokes up the road who need help".

Mr Anderson can't remember it but the crews returned to the property twice more to keep it safe.

But he does know that he wouldn't have a house if it weren't for the fireys.

"They are men of action," he said.

"I have been thinking about it on and off for weeks - they are volunteers and what they have been doing is s--- work, hard work, and dangerous work.

"Words can't express how totally f---ing grateful I am."

Tallangatta CFA member Ian Trevaskis with Sherree Coysh and other members from the Kiewa and Tallangatta CFA. Picture: Simon Dallinger
Tallangatta CFA member Ian Trevaskis with Sherree Coysh and other members from the Kiewa and Tallangatta CFA. Picture: Simon Dallinger

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