Forged in flames: 3 women tell the tale of how they battled one of summer’s biggest blazes

Vogue reported that the residents of Bawley Point have built a strong sense of community and belonging, thanks to their Rural Fire Service and the volunteers who protect their small coastal enclave. Vogue revisits a week from hell when three women, all mothers and rookie volunteer firefighters, battled one of last summer’s biggest blazes.

They saw their first walls of fire on the boundary line of Willinga Park equestrian centre on December 2, 2019, a Monday night. Luci Somers and Joy Townsend, two rookie volunteers with the Bawley Point brigade of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), were crew on a small fire truck called out to the centre, just inland from the South Coast village of Bawley Point.

At the fire shed, the women had pulled on their personal protective equipment: clodhopping, lace-up black boots, shapeless fireproof trousers, a yellow coat, T-shirts, bike shorts and sports bras – underwire bras are not recommended as the metal can melt into skin. They scrambled into the truck for the short drive to the equestrian centre.

The call-out had indicated the fire was small, but on a narrow dirt road into Willinga, it exploded. Bawley Point RFS captain Charlie Magnuson called for backup. “It was burning all the way to the top of the trees,” recalls Townsend. “There were raindrops of embers.” Fiery branches dropped from flaming gum trees. Within minutes, the blaze had closed over the road. The crew was enveloped in a red, smoky, windy world. They unreeled hoses and doused fires along the Willinga fence line, but the fire forced them back. “Stay close to the truck, girls,” Magnuson ordered. The truck had a limited water supply. It inched along, the women crouching behind it, doing the best they could to tame the flames.

Zooming through the chaos, Somers’s husband, Glen McMillan, a Willinga groundskeeper, was on a quad bike without protective gear. “I have this image of Glen on this little quad bike riding past these walls of flame and I remember thinking: ’Oh, this is out of control … is this really how we fight fire?’” says Townsend. Huddled beside the truck with Somers, she confessed: “I’m so fucking scared.”

A week earlier, a lightning bolt had struck a parched, remote valley in the Currowan area, about 25 kilometres inland from Bawley Point, or Bawley, as fond locals call it. On Tuesday, November 26, Somers and Townsend were with a crew sent to the edge of the Currowan State Forest. They could see and smell smoke but the fire was inaccessible.

The chatter among the gathered firefighters was that even when the fire emerged, it wouldn’t cross the Clyde River, no way. But when the beast showed its face it was fierce and hungry. By Wednesday, November 27, it had a name – the Currowan fire – and covered 2,500 hectares. It jumped the river on Thursday, November 28, and snarled towards the coast. “We kept tabs on the fact that it was creeping towards the east coast but no one thought it would cross the Princess Highway,” Townsend says.

The bushfires of the 2019-2020 Australian season though, were not like any before. No amount of accumulated firefighting knowledge and experience could have predicted how ferociously they would burn and how impossible they would be to control. The Currowan fire would jump the highway. It would menace Bawley and other seaside villages for the next week and go on to burn for more than 70 days through nearly 500,000 hectares of the Shoalhaven region, destroying 285 homes. The firefighting effort would put multiple RFS volunteers in terrifying, dangerous situations, leaving them traumatised and exhausted.

The fire would also prove to sexist doubters the strength, commitment and steeliness of three women recruited to the Bawley RFS only months earlier – Somers, Townsend and fellow Bawley resident Lise Percival. 

During their training, the women had learned what must be done if a truck is engulfed in flames – a “burn over”. Fire-resistant blinds on the windows are lowered and a sprinkler system which dampens the truck’s exterior is activated. The crew duck under fire blankets. “I remember Charlie saying to us during training, ‘that so rarely happens; you don’t have to worry about that’,” says Percival.

Around lunch on Sunday, December 1, Townsend walked from her Bawley home to the beach with her sister visiting from Wollongong. The beach is the heart of the community, a place of serendipitous encounter. It’s where Townsend, 33, first met Somers, 35, now a close friend. It’s where Somers met Glen McMillan checking out the surf in 2012: she had only recently arrived in Bawley with her baby after fleeing a troubled relationship.

On this Sunday, it was hot and windy; Townsend and her sister swam, but the water was rough, the beach deserted, the day sour. To the west, a sharp blue sky was almost obscured by a swathe of grey-brown smoke. By then the Currowan fire had ripped through 16,000 hectares. “It was eerie seeing the smoke so close all of a sudden,” says Townsend.

Within hours, she and Somers would face their first flames of the week. Around 3pm, their pagers went off and they raced to the RFS shed. An isolated fire had broken out in Meroo National Park, north of Bawley. The women moved around a campground informing people they needed to leave; most packed up but a lone Aboriginal man refused. He told them it was his Country and there had been a death in his family. “He had a little abalone shell and was doing a smoking ceremony,” says Somers. The women let him be.

The park fire was inaccessible by vehicle and the crew trekked down a steep hill to reach it. They tried to contain it using dry firefighting techniques, including raking back casuarina undergrowth, but it was futile. National Parks arrived to bulldoze a firebreak, a water-bombing helicopter appeared above. The fire “woofed” up, says Townsend. “It was frightening how fast it escalated.” She texted her engineer husband, Pete, to relay a message to her sister: the highway would likely close soon and she should leave Bawley. Townsend asked her to take the couple’s children, Lyla, 10, and Milo, five, back to Wollongong.

Townsend and Somers were still at the fire around 5pm when the RFS issued the first emergency bushfire warning. A text advised people between Bawley and North Durras, 30 minutes down the coast, to “leave now if path clear”.

Bawley RFS volunteer Percival was feeling “a bit dusty” after a work Christmas dinner when the text landed. Soon after, a police officer knocked on the door advising evacuation. “The phone went crazy,” says Percival, 43, the director of a Batemans Bay childcare centre. Friends and relatives wanted to know what she and her husband, Chadd, general manager of Willinga Park, would do.

The couple had prepared their tidy brick home for fire, besides, Chadd needed to stay close to Willinga. Its billionaire owner had spent years preparing a meticulous fire plan: the estate has beautiful native gardens and tall gum trees but no undergrowth. It has its own water trucks, heavy machinery for clearing, and sources of backup power. In the horrendous week that followed, the 800-hectare property would be a crucial fortification in Bawley’s battle against the Currowan blaze.

On Sunday night, Percival packed up a few things – baby photos of their daughters, Lauren, 16, and Rachael, 13, birth certificates, passports – in case they needed to flee. “There was a bit of smoke in the air, but nothing that you thought, ’wow, is it close?’,” Percival says. But overnight, the fire leapt the Princes Highway into the Murramarang National Park fringing the edges of Bawley.

Early Monday morning the family locked up their house and moved to a cabin at Willinga.

Around the same time, Somers bundled her daughters, Pippi, nine, and Macy, six, into her car and drove up the highway to deliver them to her mother in Milton. The roads were soon to be closed. Somers wanted to get back to Bawley to be ready for the fire before it was too late.

Bawley Point’s RFS Christmas party is open to the whole community. Fireys tend the barbecue and there’s a water slide for the kids. At the 2018 party, Dutch-born volunteer Hendrik Boone, known to all as “Dump” (pronounced “Doomp”), stopped to chat to Somers and Townsend. “Come on, just join,” he said, shoving registration forms at them. The friends glanced at each other. “Why not,” they said, “let’s do it together.”

Somers had been thinking about joining since her former partner, Pippi’s father, had lost everything when a bushfire destroyed the caravan he was living in on a Milton property earlier that year. Pippi had taken on some of the weight of her father’s distress. Somers had set up a GoFundMe page, partly to show her little girl that, even in difficult relationships, you can be kind. She also wanted to illustrate the strength of community. It was one of the reasons Somers signed up to the RFS. “It was to show her that you could do something that made you feel powerful against things like that.”

For Dr Townsend, it was partly a “social experiment”. She works from home as a sociologist and research consultant. Much of her work relates to the integration of women into male-dominated workplaces. She thought joining the RFS would be a “cool opportunity” to gain her own lived experience. It didn’t take long. “When I had my test to get in, the officer said to me, very sternly … ‘now if some bloke grabs you on the arse when you’re getting in the truck, don’t jump up and down about it, alright?’.” She was shocked. “What do you mean?” she asked. “Well, you know, there’s often a lot of argy-bargy that goes on when we’re getting into the truck,” he said. “They might have just accidentally tapped you.” Townsend let it drop. She enjoyed the camaraderie she had with the older male volunteers, people she might not normally meet. She let pass the occasional sexist comment and ignored the off-colour banter between blokes (“oh watch yourself, we’ve got married women in the back”).

Somers, a forthright former restaurant manager and florist, is less forgiving. She remembers attending a fire on a property outside Bawley in September. “Where’s your lipstick, ladies?” the owner said. She gets cross when the brigade’s “older dudes” become protective of them because they’re women. “Like, Charlie will call us ’the girls’ and I’ll say: ‘Charlie, we’re women, and I can probably do that better than you can.’”

Somers showed her mettle during one of the Currowan fire’s most perilous events. On the evening of Tuesday, December 3, her crew responded to a triple-0 call made by one of its own – Tony Anderson*, an RFS volunteer from their brigade. He had stayed to protect his family’s home high on a hill at the end of a narrow two-kilometre dirt road near Termeil, about 10 minutes from Bawley. The fire had torn up the valleys surrounding the house with unimaginable speed and force. Anderson was on his own and asthmatic.

As the big truck charged up a ridge towards the house with fire raging below the road on both sides, the driver, Dump, turned to his crew leader, Magnuson. “Are we going to do this?” he asked. Magnuson turned around to check if his team was comfortable proceeding. “That’s when I realised I had the three girls in the truck. I forgot!” he says. Somers, Percival and Townsend were in the back seat. They wanted to rescue Anderson. In any case, there seemed little choice but to keep going: the only spot to turn the truck around was up at the house; reversing back down the hill would have been impossible.

Percival was worried. “I’m seeing all this fire, nothing like I’ve ever seen before.” She remembered something from training. “When you go to a fire, you’ve just got to know when you’re there, what’s your exit.” She also knew the most dangerous thing wasn’t the fire itself but trees crashing down on a truck: the greatest cause of death for firefighters.

At one point, the crew realised that the pump for the sprinkler system wasn’t on. Somers volunteered to get out to turn it on. As she ran to the back of the truck, she thought: “Fuck, I hope I remember how to do it, like, what if it doesn’t work?” But she was calm. “I’m not a hysterical person … you’re doing what you need to do.” About halfway up the hill, Anderson’s house came into view. There were flames on a rise above it and tearing up the valley below. Magnuson turned to his crew: “Get your gear on, get your burnover gear on, get your blankets out.” In such a fire the outside temperature can reach 1,200 degrees. “Your body starts to melt at 100.”

Finally, at a flat area near the house, Dump began the slow backwards and forwards process of turning the truck around. They could see Anderson on a deck, tangled in hoses, trying to put out spot fires. Magnuson opened his door and bellowed: “Tony, leave it!” There were expletives. “Get the hell out of there.” Dump stood up in his seat and thrust the top of his body out the window: “Tony, it’s time to go, leave it.” As Magnuson closed his door, flames roared over the truck. “We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go,” Percival yelled. Townsend remembers watching as flames consumed a vegetable garden. She remembers the noise – the howl of the fire, the explosion of gas bottles and equipment connected to a solar system. Then Anderson was suddenly scrambling into the back seat with them and collapsing on the floor, red faced, gasping for breath.

The women pushed water at him, checked his breathing. Dump started to accelerate. “Do I just drive through this?” he asked Magnuson. “Just go, go,” was the reply. “That’s when I reached for Luci’s hand,” says Townsend. “I held Luci’s hand so I must have been feeling scared. But I was so happy that Tony was in the truck.” They would learn later that, remarkably, his house did not burn.

As the truck sped through high flames down the dirt road to the highway, its side mirrors started to melt.

Late on the night of Anderson’s rescue, Townsend said goodbye to her home for the first time. An emergency text warned that fire fronts were approaching and people remaining should take shelter. She took a photo of her house that night. “I thought that might be the last photo.”

But the fire didn’t hit the town that night, nor on Wednesday.

Early Thursday, Townsend said goodbye to her house again. Strong westerly winds and high temperatures were forecast. It was smoky and “weirdly still”. She had the sense that time had stopped. “It was a really strange feeling that morning, like I had to remember every single little thing because I felt like life won’t ever be the same after today.”

Around 11am, Townsend, Percival and Somers were among firefighters called to a blaze that a local had lit on his property. On a day of total fire bans the man said a pile burn had got away from him. Within minutes, the fire had run up a hill to surround a neighbouring property. Somers and Townsend were on a hose, a few metres in front of a horizontal wall of flame. “It took the strength of both of our bodies,” says Townsend.

Magnuson describes Bawley Point as “the luckiest village on the South Coast”. As one of the first to be affected by fire, fire-fighting aircraft and RFS crews from other towns converged on the village. Backup firefighters soon were at the scene and within a couple of hours, the runaway pile burn was under control.

But the Currowan fire was still blazing towards the village. Around 2pm, Magnuson told crews the fire was expected to hit the village in an hour. “It’ll go straight up our street,” Townsend thought. Her husband texted saying he had released their chooks. “I love my chickens, like, I’ve had them for years,” she says. “I knew then, okay, yeah, we’re definitely gonna lose our house.”

At 3.30pm, a redeployment order came through. The truck headed to Somers’s street, which backs on to bush, joining a line of RFS trucks setting up hoses, preparing for the fire. In Townsend’s mind, what happened next is in panic-hued soft focus. The sky went dark. The tops of the towering eucalpyts behind the houses swirled with red. The air was filled with the sound of exploding gas bottles. Somers broke down in tears when a mob of kangaroos burst out of the bush and bounded across the street towards the beach. Firefighters prepared to take shelter in the trucks. “It was going to take out all those houses then head straight up our street and keep going,” says Townsend.

Then, the wind changed. “It was the strangest thing … it suddenly came up and pushed the fire almost in a straight line along the back of the backyards, straight up to behind the fire shed. It didn’t touch a single house … it came to the edge of their lawns and stopped. It was surreal.”

The two women were exhausted, ecstatic. When they could sign off, they jumped on Somers’s little motorbike and zipped off. “We had a gin at the Point. We were still in our uniforms and we reeked of smoke and it was this feeling of like: ‘Oh my gosh, this is over, for Bawley Point this is over,’” says Townsend. Some local boys pulled up on a jet ski. “I was like, ‘you’ve got to take a photo of us, we’ve just done such cool stuff.’”

Townsend’s firefighting season was nearly over: two days later, she discovered she was pregnant. She went on one more call-out – to a “hairy”, late-night back-burn – before deciding it wasn’t the right thing for her to go out again. A couple of weeks after the day Bawley nearly burned, she fell apart. “I experienced a physical, mental and emotional crash like nothing I’ve felt before. It was like I had been hollowed out.”

Somers too, would crash. By early January, the Currowan fire had travelled 40 minutes north of Bawley Point to Conjola Park, where it destroyed 89 homes. By January 4 it was threatening the beachside community of Manyana. Somers, Dump and Magnuson were among Bawley firefighters who went to help defend the town. “It was a shocking day,” says Magnuson. “I tell my wife that at one stage I didn’t think I’d make it; not because of the fire but because of exhaustion and heat.” The temperature hit 43°C. The humidity was below 10 per cent. The wind was crazy. The air-conditioning in the truck wasn’t working. The drinking water was hot. The eye drops were hot. “It was just insane,” recalls Somers. “It was a horrible, really physically taxing day.”

By the end of it, her face was swollen and red. The next day she was coughing and retching and sick to her stomach, she thinks from the effect of toxic smoke. She could barely move from her bed for a week. But it was more than physical. Somers muses now about the effect of the weeks of anxiety, that they woke up something like a “muscle memory” of past traumas. “It reminded me so much of things that have happened through the course of all these other shitty things over my life.”

Magnuson says there were two male brigade members who were dubious about the idea of women signing up. “Since the fires they’ve come to me and apologised.” There are now 19 women members of the brigade, including 16-year-old Lauren, Percival’s daughter.

Magnuson reckons that Somers has the potential to be a “very special” captain of the Bawley RFS. She is, he says, resilient, strong and compassionate. “This girl never stops,” he says, proving that old language habits are hard to break. “Luci could probably carry some guys on her back … and I’m sure she could put someone on their arse if they got too cocky as well.” Magnuson fancies the idea of sitting on his veranda in years to come and waving at her as the RFS truck goes past. “There goes Captain Luci …” In the meantime, Somers is training for a heavy rigid licence so she can drive the big fire truck. She is also hoping to open a cafe in Bawley. Just as this village became a new home for her after years of upheaval, she wants to create a cafe that’s “like another home for people”.

Percival thinks the dreadful summer brought the entire community together. “What’s really good about the Bawley shed, I think it brought us all closer.” Adds Magnuson: “We spent so much time together that we’re like a family.”

Late on the December Thursday night when Townsend realised the fire had passed Bawley, she and her husband Pete walked to the beach. “We said to each other: ’We will never leave Bawley Point’ … the bond was so strong.” Pete, who procrastinated about joining the brigade, has now started his training, following in his wife’s footsteps.

*Name has been changed

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