Hero's welcome home for our returned firefighters
AFTER days walking through blackened ashes of a farming community, a group of Mackay region volunteer firefighters returned to a heroes welcome.
After a week-long deployment in the heart of the New South Wales inferno, in the south-coast town of Nowra, five senior firefighters touched down at Mackay Airport.
Walking through the terminal gates Tuesday night, the firefighters were bombarded by hugs and affection as they reunited with their families.
But for many, it was a bittersweet moment.
After seeing the devastation, strike team leader Shane Hopton said his team was already considering heading south again.
Cannon Valley first and second officers, Tim Murphy and Darren Hinton, , Conway first officer Aaron Reagan, Grasstree first officer Liam Mulvaney and Victoria Plains first officer Luke Stevenson were part of an 18-member Central Queensland strike team to fly into Nowra.
Mr Hopton said the nightshift relief team, codenamed "Strike Team India", only saw Nowra by night.
But Mr Hopton said even in the darkness the devastation was clear.
EMERGENCY WARNING: Currowan Fire. The fire continues to burn quickly towards the coast. All coastal areas east and west of the Princes Hwy between Nowra and Kioloa should seek shelter as the fire approaches. #NSWRFS pic.twitter.com/5zj1Bn9Dmm— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 4, 2020
"Everywhere we went it was burnt," Mr Hopton said.
"It was total destruction."
Since November local firefighters have faced an inferno, he said.
At its peak over the New Year period, several firefronts merged into an almost unstoppable blaze.
Residents reported the sky turned red, thick with smoke.
EMERGENCY WARNING: Currowan Fire (Shoalhaven LGA). The fire continues to burn towards a number of areas around Nowra and the Princes Hwy near Fishermans Paradise. This video was taken on Cabbage Tree Lane at Nowra Hill.— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 31, 2019
📹 Mark Coombe - NSW RFS #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/Xv7mBCoK9s
After driving through the charred forests, Mr Hopton said he lost count of the number of destroyed homes.
As visitors to the region, he said the sight of the ash-covered land was humbling.
For the local fireys, who lived and worked in these communities everyday, Mr Hopton said it would have been heartbreaking.
"We could only go through the aftermath to see what they've been facing," he said.
Even after three months of firefighting, Mr Hopton said the local volunteers were still at the front, right beside his team.
Despite numerous houses lost, the landscape blackened and the community in shock, Mr Hopton said the residents of Nowra were still in good spirits.
"It just about brings a tear to your eye," he said.
"It was humbling to see the amount of support we got."
When their plane touched down at 8.40pm Wednesday, brigade training and support officer Brittany Lea-Hewson said there were smiles throughout the airport.
"Their families were waiting in anticipation," Ms Lea-Hewson said.
After the seven-day operation, she said it was clear "they were worn out".
"As much as they were happy to return home, they wanted to stay back and help the boys down there," Ms Lea-Hewson said.
Mr Hopton said a request for the fireys to return south had not come through, but he suspects it would only be a matter of time.
"We all join for the same reason, to help our neighbours," he said.