Shoulder to shoulder with friends
17 October 2014
Volunteer firefighters Jono and Tim Boxwell and Nathan Culpan lost their home when fires engulfed the Blue Mountains in October. But this didn’t stop them putting their lives at risk to save others.
The fires came quickly, fanned by strong winds and high temperatures. Rural Fire Service volunteer Nathan Culpan left his job to man a truck based at Yellow Rock station in the lower Blue Mountains. His girlfriend, Amber Cobb was also on board.
“It was pretty scary,” Amber remembers. “It was basically just ‘pick a house and defend it’.... There were elderly people ... we were trying to get them into cars... It was crazy.”
When the fire jumped the road and threatened properties in Yellow Rock, Nathan’s crew was sent back to protect homes. Nathan arrived to find his rental property, which he shared with friends Tim and Jono, alight.
He smashed his way in to save his father’s World War II memorabilia. “I can replace everything else but I can’t replace those,” he says. “That was the only thing I told the crew I wanted to get, I just needed to get those.”
When the roof started crashing down around him, his crew pulled him to safety.
“All the hydrants were bone dry so we didn’t have any more water,” says Amber. “Once we went through our tank of water we just stood there and watched his house burn to the ground.”
Fifteen minutes later, Nathan, Amber and the crew were back on the truck and back at the frontline of the firestorm. They saved many homes that afternoon and evening.
“I’m not a hero,” insists Nathan. “I just did what anyone else would have done in that situation. It’s a pretty awful feeling seeing your house burn down. If you can do anything to try and stop someone else having to go through that, it’s a pretty good day’s work.”
Stuck in traffic on his way back from work to fight the fires, Nathan’s flatmate and fellow fire service crew member, Jono, received a phone call with the news their home had gone.
“I just about broke down and couldn’t drive. The shock of it, I think, hit me.”
Unable to get through the roadblocks, Jono was left shocked and frustrated. “I just felt helpless – I couldn’t get in and do anything for anyone,” he says.
His brother Tim had been fighting fires in a nearby suburb when he was told of the loss.
“When I found out, I’d just watched someone else’s house burn down. It’s pretty bad watching that happen when you can’t really do much about it,” he remembers. “To have my own house gone – it was a bit of a shock.”
Firefighting and police roadblocks kept them separated and unable to reach the remains of their home until the next day.
“Stuff was still smouldering when we got there,” says Tim as he describes digging through the rubble the next day. “It was my girlfriend’s birthday the day it happened and all the presents I got her were in the house as well, so I was pretty upset.”
Salvation Army Majors Ian and Kerry Spall are senior chaplains to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and supported the four friends during and after the event.
“We were there to support firefighters on the scene, especially those who’d lost their property. We helped get them back on trucks and keep them going,” says Ian.
When Jono lost his home, he lost his firefighting equipment along with it. The Spalls helped him find a new kit to continue his work.
“We were really concerned about getting a kit to him as soon as possible. It’s a vote of confidence that the person is a valuable firefighter if you can get them back on the truck,” explains Ian.
After the fires had passed, the Spalls also helped the four friends find their feet again. They got through roadblocks to bring a generator to Tim and Jono’s parents home to keep the household running. They organised paperwork for Nathan and helped disconnect various services. And they negotiated with Amber’s car insurers and university.
The four friends didn’t know the Spalls before the crisis, but they have since formed lifelong bonds.
Nathan says he doesn’t know where he’d be without the Spalls’ support. “They are unbelievable. I can’t say thank you enough to those two – they are amazing.”
“I’m so grateful for them and what they’ve done in the last few weeks,” says Tim.
Nathan, Amber, Tim and Jono also received assistance from The Salvation Army’s Recovery Centre in the lower Blue Mountains, which is continuing to support those affected communities.
Photo credit: Shairon Paterson