Bushman realised fire 'too big, too late'

·3-min read

A "strong-willed" bushman died after dismissing firefighters' calls to abandon his rugged property, likely realising too late he was incapable of defending his home, an inquest has been told.

Colin Burns, 72, died in his crashed ute on a narrow, unsealed road when the Badja Forest fire swept through NSW South Coast village Belowra on New Year's Eve 2019.

The hobbyist farmer, keen runner and former miner had elected to stay and defend two cottages on his 607-hectare property Jiliby.

The inquest was told on Tuesday Mr Burns was sitting on his porch in the early hours of December 31 when a fire captain drove up and advised him to "get out".

Ritchie Sealy said the weather had changed and "we needed to look at saving lives and not properties", counsel assisting Tracey Stevens said.

But the evidence demonstrated Mr Burns, himself a longtime volunteer firefighter, probably stayed put until flames were upon his house about seven or eight o'clock.

"It is likely he realised he could not defend it himself and he made a late decision to evacuate," Ms Stevens said on Tuesday.

Dashing into his ute, which was towing a firefighting trailer, Mr Burns took off down a narrow road to try to outrun the blaze.

The next day, local Rural Fire Service captain Ewan Thompson found Mr Burns' remains in his burnt ute about three kilometres from Jiliby.

The ute sat on exposed metal rims, its glass windows were gone and the trailer had tipped in a way suggesting Mr Burns misjudged a turn and ran up a bank.

"I believe he was blinded by smoke and possibly, a very fierce burst of fire," Mr Thompson told the inquest.

The fire chief said he'd helped Mr Burns on Jiliby until about 3am when deciding the community's south was facing a graver situation.

His last words to Mr Burns - "if your life is threatened, leave and go to the fire shed" - were met with a nod.

"He didn't say anything, he understood what I was saying," Mr Thomspon said.

A neighbour of Mr Burns who'd fought smaller bushfires also tried to defend her property until the last moment, describing how embers breached her house's wooden shutters as her family escaped through back paddocks in search of already-scorched ground.

"We weren't expecting what came," Deborah Dance said.

The inquest was told the fire was beyond anything local crews had ever seen, becoming extreme after nightfall and forcing firefighting to continue throughout the morning.

One local firefighter described Mr Burns as "strong-willed", noting the difficulty in trying to budge his choice once Mr Burns made a decision.

Mr Burns' partner, Threlly, agreed he was sometimes stubborn and wanted things "his way" while describing a kind, generous "bushman" who made sure to look after her, his friends and his community.

"I miss Colin every day," she said in a statement, read by Ms Stevens.

Mr Burns' inquest is part of a broader inquiry into the Badja Forest Fire, which claimed seven lives.

The state coroner has been told the blaze was ignited after lightning struck a remote forest on December 27, 2019.

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