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None of us had ever seen anything like it

Malua Bay

A story from Malua Bay in NSW, reflecting life in June 2020

67-year old Graeme Skelton has always volunteered. He believes it is what you do to be part of a community. He is also a pragmatist. “If you don’t volunteer, nothing gets done,” he says.

Graeme and his wife retired to Malua Bay on the far south coast of NSW and he started volunteering with the Rural Fire Service (RFS) in 2014.

“When I moved here it became obvious you needed to be part of the local community. Down here there are no excess people, so it is up to the people who live here to do the heavy lifting,” he explains.

Graeme Skelton is the Deputy Fire Chief of the Malua Bay RFS and he and his other three crew members were on duty fighting the McGregors Creek and Clyde Mountain fires on 30 and 31 December 2019.

“So, on that night we were a crew of four. The driver of our truck is 80, I’m 67 and the other two crew are mid 50s - average crew age of 65. That’s the real face of the NSWRFS in the field,” Graeme says.

Graeme wants to tell his story, so people understand how bad it was and why it was so bad.

“At eight o’clock in the morning after a pretty harrowing night we decided to go back to Batemans Bay after 16 hours on duty and as we came over the top of the mountain, we saw this massive firestorm rolling in. None of us had ever seen anything like it …it was just… it was indescribable what it did. It moved so quickly. So we stayed on duty and kept fighting the fire working on life and property protection,” Graeme said.

“You couldn’t conceive of it getting as bad as that because no one had ever seen anything like it.”

He says what happened on New Year’s Eve was a combination of missteps and the fire did not need to be as bad as it was. “There just weren’t enough resources on the ground. It was a bunch of old people trying to save their community. “

Graeme says that trees surrounded their most significant infrastructure – the telecommunication towers.

“By early morning on 31 December the Mt Wandera communications tower was burnt, and we lost our main communications. We almost lost the fire station and I think we lost 600 power poles on the south coast in the fire,” he said. 

Following the fires, communications and power were out for most of January.

“I think there was a significant lack of analysis and intelligence gathering, and it’s no good talking about it if we don’t consider that we need to have some capability to maintain critical infrastructure outside of the fire season and we need to listen to the people on the ground,” Graeme said.