Volunteer firie recalls 'tornadoes of fire' that almost wiped out her family

·9-min read

On New Year’s Eve Siobhan Threlfall thought she might never see her family again.

As she pressed her back against the door of the Nerrigundah volunteer fire shed, it began to buckle. Flames driven by strong winds surrounded the outside of the shed where she had taken shelter.

Thick smoke filled the shed, it was pitch black and Siobhan, 25, could hear her younger sister, Skye, 21, screaming for their brother, she realised her years of training as a volunteer fire fighter couldn’t prepare her for the unprecedented fire storm roaring through the NSW South Coast, destroying homes, properties and taking lives.

“I trained for a fire but this was not ‘just a fire’ because you expect to have a fire front, but you didn’t have a fire front – this fire was everywhere,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

The day had started with Siobhan’s father Ron, captain of the Nerrigundah volunteer fire fighter brigade, preparing his family for the fires they expected to reach them within two hours, they had all trained as volunteer fire fighters.

Ron had gone to the local fire shed to patrol the fire lines with Siobhan’s older brother Cayden while Siobhan and her sister were stationed at the house. Their mother had evacuated earlier with the family dogs to make sure they were safe.

Nerrigundah fire at the Threlfall family home
The Threlfall family home surrounded by flames in Nerrigundah on the NSW South Coast. Source: Siobhan Threlfall

“We were just wetting down the house and listening to the radio and over the radio,” she explained.

“We we were hearing reports of people being rescued, kids with burnt feet in burnt houses and then we heard from my brother on the radio that he couldn’t reach two of our members, they were stuck inside their house and that’s when I kind of thought ‘oh my god, people are going to die’,” Siobhan said.

The two sisters watched the fire creep toward their house when it suddenly picked up speed, at that moment the water pump stopped working.

Siobhan ran to the bottom of their property to get the sprinkler system working and as she looked back to her sister, she knew they had run out of time.

“I was only gone for about two minutes and when I got back up to the hill, we’d already lost three houses and my sister was screaming at me to get in the car because the fire shed was our place to go if s**t hits the fan, so we got in the car and drove, we didn’t even close the doors,” she said.

‘Felt like the end of the world’

When the sisters approached the shed it was surrounded by flames.

“There was just fire completely surround thing the shed, all you can see is flames - above you, below you, surrounding you,” she said.

Instinct kicked in and they pair attempted to protect the shelter.

“We get down to the shed and kind of drive through a wall of flames, jump out and grabbed the hose and the hose just started melting in our hands,” Siobhan explained.

As they took shelter in the shed, other volunteers joined them and in the darkness they could only wait out the fire and hoped the shed’s sprinkler system would protect them.

Sisters Sky Threlfall (left), 21 and Siobhan Threlfall (right), 25, outside of the fire shed in quieter times
Sisters Sky Threlfall (left), 21 and Siobhan Threlfall (right), 25, outside of the Nerrigundah fire shed in quieter times. Source: Siobhan Threlfall

“At one point the door buckled in and we have flames coming in the door so we all had to put our back against the door and push it to stop the flames coming in,” Siobhan said.

“Probably the hardest things in the shed was one of our members – his dog was supposed to be in the shed and had run off and he was searching the shed for it and as you would, he kind of lost it in that moment and he was screaming and we all thought he was going to run out into the flames.

“It felt like the end of the world in there”.

Siobhan realised her father Ron was in the shed and together they walked outside and looked toward their family home, they saw Cayden near their house in the fire truck when two gas bottles exploded separately.

Siobhan told Yahoo News she thought she had lost her brother.

“The second explosion shook the valley and I could hear my sister screaming for my brother inside the shed,” Siobhan said.

Thankfully, Cayden wasn’t injured and when he returned to the shed in the fire truck, the family knew they had to check on the safety of their neighbours but most of the houses were destroyed.

“There was no chance at saving them,” Siobhan said.

Nerrigundah on fire (left) and injured wildlife (right) after the devastating fires.
Nerrigundah on fire (left) and injured wildlife (right) after the devastating fires. Source: Siobhan Threlfall

‘I’m not ok’

The family decided to check on their family home but as they drove towards it Siobhan saw the garage had been destroyed, the garden was burnt and she saw flames in the windows.

“My dad has built our house and we have a beautiful garden that he’s grown for 30 odd years and he has all his carvings and sculptures so it’s a lot to lose, as it is for anyone,” she explained.

“And I looked at dad and I said are you ok? And he said ‘no, I’m not ok’”.

Just as they had decided to return to the fire shed, Siobhan realised the flames were on the outside and just reflecting in the windows.

“We had a chance to save the house,” she said.

In the panic to leave the fire shed and check on neighbours, they had made one crucial mistake.

“With everything that had happened we had forgotten to fill up the tank, so we had no water in the truck and I was just watching my house burn, I can’t do anything right now because to go down to the shed to fill up and come back, the house would be gone,” Siobhan explained.

With no communication available, Siobhan thought they had lost the house.

“Other members of the brigade came up in the other truck at that moment and we got the hoses out and we managed to get one on the house,” she said.

Siobhan Threlfall with her mum in their volunteer fire fighting gear
Siobhan Threlfall (left) and with her mum (right). Source: Siobhan Threlfall

When Siobhan spotted jackets hanging in the laundry on fire, she ran into the house filled with thick smoke to pull them out.

“As you walk into that house your face just kind of explodes with mucus,” she said, later that night she would lose her eye sight for three days.

“It was just kind of excruciating pain but at that time, people in the nearby village had third degree burns and it kind of put it into perspective, like this is nothing compared to what other people are going through,” she said.

Once the house was safe, Siobhan’s brother and father left to check on more houses in the area while Siobhan stayed behind where she decided to record her thoughts.

“That has got to be the scariest thing I have ever seen,” Siobhan said into the camera.

“My dad in 32 years of being in the fire brigade has never been through anything like that, you honestly can’t learn that, you learn what a fire is like and that’s not what you learn”.

Three months later

Recording her thoughts is one way the marine biologist has coped since returning back to Sydney where she now lives.

“I still have days where I think about it a lot and I think about how close it got...” she said, trailing off.

“When my sister was screaming at me and I was down at the pump, if I hadn’t of come back at that moment I probably wouldn’t be here you know, and if she hadn’t of been there watching out it would have been too late, we would have been stuck in the house.

And then when we were in the shed it was very close and I felt like we could all die here and we lost communications until like 5pm that night, and so my mum the whole time thought that we might be dead and that was hardest on her”.

The Threlfall family are all trained volunteer fire fighters with the Nerrigundah volunteer fire brigade
The Threlfall family are all trained volunteer fire fighters with the Nerrigundah volunteer fire brigade. Source: Siobhan Threlfall

Bushfire victims still waiting for help

It’s been almost three months since that day and Siobhan said not enough help has arrived.

“My parents only got the power back on three days ago,” she said.

“We haven’t had anything cleared, people are still kind of in limbo, some people are still struggling to get money from insurers... some are living in tents”.

When asked if the Nerrigundah fire brigade had seen any of the funds that generous Australians poured into various charities, Siobhan said they haven’t seen any of it and it’s desperately needed.

“The only funding we have seen is from the local community fundraising,” Siobhan said.

“Because we are small fire brigades they don’t have the best equipment, we didn’t have the newest gear, we didn’t have masks, we didn’t have anything really... one of the fire trucks in one of the brigades near us still has a wooden tray on the back of their truck, it’s that old, so even if we just had safe equipment would be really, really good,” she added.

When asked what she would say if she could speak directly to Prime Minister Scott Morrison,

“I would say that obviously, the vast area that we had burn was unprecedented and we didn’t have enough people, enough resources to fight it and the fire conditions were unlike anything anyone had ever experienced before, it was like tornados of fire, clearly there is something that needs to be done.”

Siobhan Threlfall will appear on Insight tomorrow night at 8.30pm on SBS.

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