No warning before firestorm took dad, son

·3-min read

A dairy farmer could be heard calling his son's name before both perished in a firestorm a stone's throw from safety, their inquest has been told.

Father-of-six Robert Salway, 63, and his youngest son, Patrick, 29, died on New Year's Eve 2019 when an intense bushfire and subsequent cyclonic winds swept the family's NSW South Coast farm.

The pair had been working on a tractor and quad bike about 50 to 70 metres from the main house.

In a statement read to the NSW Coroners Court on Tuesday, Janelle Salway described fighting spot fires on the farmhouse steps before searching for her husband and son.

As she called "where are you" into thick smoke and darkness, she heard Robert faintly saying "Patrick, Patrick".

Believing the sound was coming from the garage, she headed that way and found the roller door completely blown out, metal bent around a water tank and some objects 30 metres away.

"As I turned the corner, I saw a big fire and I saw it was the tractor," Ms Salway said.

"I thought Robert and Patrick would be in the farmhouse."

After the fire passed, Ms Salway went into the paddock and confirmed the worst, the inquest was told.

"I've found them - they've gone," she told son Aaron by phone.

The tractor's windows melted and both vehicles were found on exposed metal rims, images showed.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Adam Casselden SC, reflected on the "enormity and bravery" of Ms Salway's actions to survive the firestorm and then locate her loved ones.

As well as killing the Salways in Wandella, the Badja Forest Fire claimed five other lives as it swept through Belowra, Cobargo and other NSW South Coast communities.

The NSW Coroners Court, which is examining events in the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires, was told the blaze's impact on the Salway farm was indiscriminate.

Aerial images showed some earth scorched, other paddocks green and a largely unscathed farmhouse, Mr Casselden said.

As well as ripping the door off the Salways' garage, the firestorm's extreme winds uprooted large trees, flung tree limbs 100 metres and tossed vehicle parts five times that distance.

A police fire investigator believes the Salway men went fire spotting after the front passed.

They'd have had little to no warning of the impending firestorm forming above as they headed back to shelter, Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Moon said.

Ms Salway said the family felt in a good position to deal with any fire as the property was mostly clear, very dry and had little grass. They'd agreed to defend only the farm's dwellings, as they'd done in previous, "normal" fires.

"I don't think anyone could have been prepared for what impacted our property that morning," she said.

Aaron Salway, who successfully defended his dairy farm in nearby Cobargo, didn't believe his brother or father would have risked their lives to stay "if they knew what was coming their way".

"The fire was so swift and severe that they could not know until it hit them," he said.

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