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Wearing two caps – Paul Johnston as senior constable in his role as a policeman and as a volunteer and member of the Nymboida RFS. Image: Lynne Mowbray

Wearing two caps

Lynne Mowbray|

For NSW Police senior constable Paul Johnston, the recent Nymboida fire saw him wearing two caps – one as an on duty policeman during the fire and the other (when off duty) as a volunteer with the Nymboida Rural Fire Service (RFS).

SC Johnston said that he was on duty at the police station in his main role as a police officer when he received a phone call in the morning (of the Nymboida fire) from (NSW RFS district manager superintendent) Stuart Watts explaining that it (the fire) had gone bad.

“The weather and the fire behaviour had taken an unexpected change and they were worried about what ‘could’ happen and asked if I was available to head out there (to Nymboida),” Paul said.

“A bit after 10am in the morning I went out there and there was a Queensland strike team already in the area doing door knocks along Glens Creek Road, giving the residents the heads up that it didn’t look good and giving them the option that if they weren’t prepared to stay home and defend, that now was the time to leave.

“There wasn’t an evacuation order, as such.

“At that stage the fire was coming through Buccarumbi  and the strike teams were up dealing with that. As the fire got beyond their capabilities and became too dangerous to remain, they pulled out. They came and marshalled at the Buccarumbi bridge and I went out and met them there. So their next task was to then come in and defend Nymboida.

“The wind at that stage had picked up – a westerly with a bit of south in it (and the fire was heading towards Nymboida) and it was pushing hard.

“The fire when it came through, jumped Old Glen Innes Road and the river like they weren’t there and ripped through the vegetation on both sides of the river – so within a matter of hours it was from Buccarumbi and it had reached into Nymboida.

“By that stage, all available vehicles or fire crews had marshalled and were taking up position as fire protection and I was with some crews on Boundary Creek Road, looking after there; others were positioned on Armidale Road and others along Glens Creek Road.

“It was very hard with so many homes; we just didn’t have enough units to cover every home. So it was a matter of leapfrogging really. If something was OK – going to the next one and then coming back if need be and unfortunately in some of the cases, the fire would get through or beyond us and the house was impacted and in that situation without a static water supply (hydrants and the rest) you just can’t put out a house fire, without those resources.

“So if the house was engulfed, we had to then push on if we couldn’t save it and go to the next and see what we could save.

“The fire was at the whims of the weather. The wind would take it one way and then the other way. The intensity was something I’ve certainly not seen before.

“I’ve seen some pretty amazing things over about 22 years but the ferocity was unparalleled in my experience.

“There was a hell of a lot of homes lost.

“There were some injuries and that was understandable; and you could call it luck or call it providence, but at the end of the day, no lives were lost and that is the main thing – and that did surprise me.

“Scott Campbell (from Lawrence RFS) found one bloke at his home and put him in his car and brought him out (of the fire). But there was a hell of a lot of that going on. He was one story among lots that night,” he said.

When asked if there was any particular thing that stuck in his mind from the night Paul said that it was really hard to focus on one or more individuals however he did recall one story.

“Two guys from Frickers Road drove out (of the fire) themselves, their vehicles were on fire and how they got to the fire shed, I don’t know. One of them was fairly badly burnt and came to us for aid and assistance and I’m a first aider and a trainer in first aid, but we were fairly busy and I think there were about five or six kids from a family up at Black Mountain who had taken refuge, they’d gotten out of their home and their parents had told them to stay at the fire shed, because they would be safe there.

“So we were sort of looking after them and their mums a nurse and they’re all first aiders and so I said, well can you look after these two guys. And they did. It was brilliant just to see that these young people at varying ages, but all in their teens, to just take up the ball and do what they’d learnt and had been trained to do.

“That was a typical of all the event. I know it’s trite, but – ‘ordinary people, doing extraordinary things’. People just stepping up and ‘doing’. “I’ve seen and done a hell of a lot of things over 32 years in the police and former police rescue and seen one or two crazy things, but it’s certainly up there for an event that will definitely be in my mind for a long time,” he said.