LIKE NOTHING ELSE: Graham Parker, of Ballandean Rural Fire Service, in the aftermath of the unprecedented Cyprus Ridge fire.
LIKE NOTHING ELSE: Graham Parker, of Ballandean Rural Fire Service, in the aftermath of the unprecedented Cyprus Ridge fire. Bianca Hrovat

Baptism of fire for volunteers

THE first time 17-year-old Curtis Batterham picked up a hose to fight a bushfire, it was to protect Stanthorpe town.

The high school student had been signed up with the Sugarloaf Rural Brigade only a few months, when the call came to defend the line.

"Before that I had done a couple of burn-offs but that was about it,” he said.

"It was pretty full on.”

Curtis was positioned on Manning Street, defending residents' properties from flames licking furiously at the town's boundaries.

He was later positioned on Club Road where again it was his duty to ensure homes were not lost.

The young man says he felt some fear, not for his own safety but for the town and its people who were under siege from an unprecedented threat.

"It is not something I would want to see again,” said Curtis.

Also at his first fire was Eric McCulloch, a 65-year-old retiree who joined three months ago.

"When I went out on Friday night it was my first time, it was hands-on, thrown in the deep end,” he said.

Curtis Batterham.
Sugarload Rural Fire Brigade member Curtis Batterham, 17, had only attended a few burn-offs before getting the call to protect Stanthorpe. Contributed

Also stationed at Manning Street, as well as Plant Road and Club Road, he did whatever tasks were instructed such as manning the fire lines and pulling out hoses.

"(The fire) was not what I had expected and all the firies told me it was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said.

After their baptism of fire, both first-timers agree they will continue with the service.

Even seasoned rural firefighters with decades' on the front line are describing the recent bushfires as the worst they have experienced.

Sugarloaf Brigade officer James Massey said he had never seen a fire move so fast in his 46 years as a volunteer.

"Without a doubt, nobody would ever have seen a fire like it, other than Victoria,” said Mr Massey.

"I think it's the closest we've ever come.

"It was the intensity and the rate of speed. The speed at which it spread across the ground was frightening - it was about 10 metres per second.

"Normally with bushfires we see them move at about three metres per second.

"And the wind gusts - the wind was about 70km/hour which is horrendous.”

James Massey.
James Massey has been a volunteer firefighter for 46 years and never saw anything like it. Sandra McEwan

Mr Massey said seasoned volunteers were facing fire that forced them to think outside the handbook.

"It was a whole new ball game and nobody had played that game before,” he said.

"We had to rely incredibly on skill and common sense because the speed at which it travelled was something nobody had ever encountered before.”

Whether it was their first fire or fortieth, firefighting volunteers succeeded in preventing a greater disaster befalling Stanthorpe and its neighbouring communities.

Although houses and properties were lost, fire chiefs agree the damage could have been worse.

Ballandean Brigade officer Graham Parker said the bushfires "could have had a big toll of damage”.

"There was the potential there for this to be an absolute catastrophic fire,” he said.

"Everyone you talk to says they can't believe there wasn't more damage or lives lost or more homes lost.

"I am in awe of everybody and the amazing team effort.”