Joel and Leah Eddy, with their sons, Hudson and Tom, inspect the burnt bushland behind their Martinsville house. Picture: Marina Neil

Joel and Leah Eddy, with their sons, Hudson and Tom, inspect the burnt bushland behind their Martinsville house. Picture: Marina Neil

How a community rises in the face of flames

Martinsville faces the flames and finds strength among its own

Community
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When a small town confronted a large bushfire, the worst of Mother Nature brought out the best in the community.

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THE Eddy family hardly need a reminder of how thin the line can be between a bushland heaven and hell. They only have to look out their back windows.

With their home nuzzling into the bottom of a steeply sided valley, the family of four live in the shadow of gum trees towering over them.

Their backyard is about 24 hectares of sclerophyll forest on the fringes of Martinsville, a village at the feet of the Watagan Mountains.

The opportunity to live in the bush was a major reason why the Eddys bought this home along Pringles Road about two years ago, after moving from Victoria.

"It's nice and quiet, and it's good for the kids," says Joel Eddy, as he watches his two boys, nine-year-old Tom and Hudson, aged seven.

"It's what we wanted."

But a great swathe of their bush idyll has been turned to ashes.

"It's a bit surreal," Leah Eddy says, as she stares at the dramatically transformed forest only about 30 metres from their house.

"You've got colours, now it's black and white."

What changed the colour of their world, and threatened to engulf just about everything the Eddys own, fluttered from the sky on the afternoon of Saturday, October 26.

That's when their home's eucalypt crown burst into flames, due to falling embers.

"See the brown patch straight over there, at the top? Right there!," says Joel, as he points across the valley to a pocket of burnt trees near the ridge line, more than a kilometre away.

"It's hard to believe something smouldering over there comes over this side, drops and relights. It's amazing."

The October blazes that tore through bushland around Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

The October blazes that tore through bushland around Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

THE bush gave birth to Martinsville.

Timber getters moved into the area to the west of Lake Macquarie in the mid 1800s, seeking a living from the hardwood forests flourishing in the Watagan Mountains.

These days, Martinsville is not so much a timber town as a tree changers' haven.

Along lanes threaded through the valleys and on roads meandering up the hills, families and city lifestyle escapees have built their homes. Others who still live in the big smoke have luxuriously rustic weekend hidey holes in the thick forests.

Martinsville is a beautiful, bucolic place.

As long as there are no fires. Then the bush - the very thing that has given quality of life and helped feed livelihoods here - can be a threat to life.

No one knows that better than Luke Masters.

Martinsville brigade captain Luke Masters. Picture: Scott Bevan

Martinsville brigade captain Luke Masters. Picture: Scott Bevan

He grew up in a house surrounded by trees in Martinsville, and his father, Rob, was the captain of the local fire service.

Just as the bush was part of young Luke's life, so were fires.

"It was always on your mind, it's always there, I suppose," Masters says. "It was always part of living out here as a kid."

Bushfires have continued to forge the life of Luke Masters. He is the captain of the Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade.

He has been in the NSW Rural Fire Service for 23 years, joining when he was just 16. But when he was younger than that, Masters would follow his dad onto fire grounds, learning how to respect the flames, and how to fight them.

The Martinsville brigade has 30 members, and their backgrounds are as diverse as the 85 square kilometres of terrain they protect.

The members range in age from the early 20s to retirees. Masters reckons the average age of the brigade members would be about 60.

They are all volunteers, holding down jobs and fulfilling family duties while giving time to the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS).

What binds them all is a motivation to learn how to prepare themselves and their own properties in the event of a fire, and a desire to be part of the community.

The Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade's station. Picture: Scott Bevan

The Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade's station. Picture: Scott Bevan

In Martinsville, the word "community" is synonymous with the brigade housed in a tin shed by the town's sports oval.

"It is the epicentre of the whole valley," Luke Masters says of the brigade. "Really, they're quite a close community out here, and they want to do their bit. They don't want to rely on external people coming in to deal with their issue."

No sooner had Joel Eddy moved to Martinsville than he joined the brigade. Although he was a country boy, having grown up near the great old gums at Echuca on the Murray River, it was Leah who directed her husband to join.

"I said to him, 'You have to. If you live here and expect people to come and help you, you need to be part of it'," Leah explains.

Those words would prove to be prophetic.

A NSW Rural Fire Service member fights the flames at Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

A NSW Rural Fire Service member fights the flames at Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

SATURDAY, October 26 lived up to the forecast. It was a fine day, with temperatures pushing into the early 30s. Yet while the sun was shining on the people of Martinsville for their weekend, the local firefighters were wary. The fire danger rating for the day was "Very High". Not that they were expecting trouble.

"These days, you've got it in the back of your mind," Luke Masters says of the bushfire threat. "But if we were expecting it, we would have been at the station, not at home minding kids."

That's what Masters was doing. While his wife was at work, he was looking after their two young children at their Cooranbong home. It was meant to be a day off from his job at Hymix Concrete.

But Mother Nature had other plans for Luke Masters and his fellow brigade members.

The wind picked up from the west and howled down the valleys, growing to at least 60 kilometres an hour. The gusts shook the panels on the brigade's shed and, in the early afternoon, brought down power lines on a gravel driveway leading to a property along Watagan Road.

Martinsville brigade member Colin Amery helping fight the fires. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

Martinsville brigade member Colin Amery helping fight the fires. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

The lines hit parched trees that lined the driveway. The bush was lit up.

Just before 3pm, the brigade's members received via their mobile phones and computers a fire call, warning of an incident at Watagan Road.

Members put their lives on hold and headed to the station.

Luke Masters bundled his kids into the car. He phoned his mother-in-law and arranged for her to meet him at the station, so that she could take care of the children while he went out and fought fires.

Once his children were safe, the brigade captain raced up Watagan Road in a light tanker, called Martinsville 9, to the source of the blaze. The bush arcing over the property's driveway had ignited into a tunnel of fire.

As Masters drove in, flames were lapping over the top of his vehicle and were fast climbing the trees, engulfing the trunks and turning them into torches.

"It's hard to imagine," Masters says, as he returns to the scene a week later, driving along the driveway flanked by charred trees and a blanket of ash. "Both sides of the road were alight, and the fire was going up the hill, and going down."

Brigade captain Luke Masters inspects the area near where the October 26 fire began. Picture: Scott Bevan

Brigade captain Luke Masters inspects the area near where the October 26 fire began. Picture: Scott Bevan

When he arrived at the main house, which is used as a short-term rental and holiday venue, Masters was surprised to find 20 people, some of them panicking at the encroaching fire.

"We've got to get these guys out," Masters realised, so his direction to them was simple. "Get out. Let's go!"

The guests piled into eight cars and followed Masters' vehicle out through the fire.

With that group out of harm's way, Masters prepared to head back down to the station to meet up with other brigade members. Everyone would be needed, for the volatile westerly and spreading bushfire was swirling up a threat unseen around Martinsville for many years.

As brigade member Tony Wright says, "This was the fire we'd been waiting to happen."

Rural Fire Service members fighting the flames around Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

Rural Fire Service members fighting the flames around Martinsville. Picture: Marina Neil

ALONG Pringles Road, Joel and Leah Eddy were standing on their driveway just after 3pm. A neighbour, who they had never met, rode up on his motorcycle and warned he had seen smoke across the valley.

Initially, the Eddys were not too worried. They had been able to smell the smoke. But it seemed distant.

What's more, they had a bushfire survival plan, they had prepared their home, placing sprinklers on the roof and around its perimeter, and they kept the yard clean. And Joel was in the village's fire brigade.

Yet events seemed to run down the best laid plans so quickly, as the fire approached.

"Within seconds, it started to get a bit closer," Leah Eddy recalls. "Within five minutes, it was, 'Get the passports, get the kids, get the dog [the family's French mastiff]!'.

"As we were leaving, Leah was saying, 'Will I grab this? Will I grab that?' Don't worry! Just go!," says her husband.

"I was nearly in tears," Leah says. "I thought the worst, that we'd lose the house."

FORTUNATE: Joel and Leah Eddy, with their sons, Hudson and Tom, inspect the burnt bushland behind their Martinsville house. Picture: Marina Neil

FORTUNATE: Joel and Leah Eddy, with their sons, Hudson and Tom, inspect the burnt bushland behind their Martinsville house. Picture: Marina Neil

The family drove the couple of kilometres to the brigade station. Joel Eddy figured Luke Masters would know what was going on.

"If there's a fire, he'll know about it. He lives and sleeps and breathes the RFS," says Eddy of his brigade captain. "He's a good bloke to know.".

The Eddys had a plan once they reached the station. Leah, the boys and the dog would leave, evacuating to her sister's home at Wyee. Joel would stay to help fight the fires.

As he watched his family drive away, Joel recalls what he felt.

"To be honest, I was relieved. I just wanted to know that they were out of harm's way. Because the way the fire looked and where it was heading, it was heading straight for our place."

Joel Eddy jumped in the light tanker with Luke Masters and headed along Pringles Road, searching for the southern fringe of the fire that was creeping down the hill from near Watagan Road.

As they drove out of a driveway near his property, Joel Eddy was confronted with a terrifying sight.

"There was an ember attack, it had dropped down between us and the neighbours," Eddy says.

Joel Eddy. Picture: Marina Neil

Joel Eddy. Picture: Marina Neil

Luke Masters knew there was still so much to be done. He had to keep moving, to rally resources and get a handle on the fires. But he also knew his colleague would want to defend his own property.

"Luke basically said, 'Are you coming, or are you staying?'," says Eddy. "I didn't want to let him down, but at the same time, 'Hey, there's a fire in my backyard. I don't really want to leave. I want to do the best I can to make sure our house is safe'."

Joel Eddy jumped out and began fighting the flames on his own.

"It was quite daunting, to be there by yourself," he says.

He wasn't alone for long. Luke Masters had called his father, Rob, who quickly arrived to help.

The burnt bushland. Picture: Marina Neil

The burnt bushland. Picture: Marina Neil

Yet a couple of men against a climbing wall of flames, racing up the hill and consuming those beautiful trees that had stood sentinel behind the Eddy family's home; it seemed an insurmountable task.

"I was concerned because I was too busy fighting [the fire] there to stop it coming around the back of the house and you can't be in two places at once."

What Joel Eddy didn't know was that Luke Masters had called in more resources, from the ground and the air, protecting the house and a shed, containing Leah's car.

The flames had whipped down a gully and were only a few metres away from the shed when help arrived.

"It's hard to tell now because it all happened so quickly, but within maybe 15, 20 minutes ... there were trucks coming from every angle," Eddy says. "There were helicopters bombing it from just above the house."

The Eddys' home, with the burnt bushland just behind the house. Picture: Marina Neil

The Eddys' home, with the burnt bushland just behind the house. Picture: Marina Neil

LESS than a kilometre further along Pringles Road, Shirley Graham was at home with a chest infection. Beyond seeing a trickle of smoke in the distance between the trees, she was unaware of what was going on.

She and her husband Kenny were members of the brigade. Shirley Graham is one of nine female members in the Martinsville unit.

On this day, she hadn't received the fire call. On the Grahams' bush block, there was no mobile phone reception, and the internet was down because the power was out.

The first Shirley knew just how close danger was to her was when Luke Masters drove up her driveway to warn her.

She offered to join the fight, but he advised his RFS team member to stay at home. Pringles Road, which is a no-through road, had been effectively blocked by the fires. Despite blazes on either side of the road, Shirley Graham wasn't worried, something she attributes to her RFS training.

"I felt confident," she says.

Rural Fire Service members fighting the Martinsville blazes. Picture: Marina Neil

Rural Fire Service members fighting the Martinsville blazes. Picture: Marina Neil

Kenny was at work about an hour away, so Shirley laid out hoses in preparation. She then went over the hill to check on her neighbours, the Matthews.

Connie and Gary Matthews and their family had lived in Pringles Road for about 16 years, about a decade longer than Shirley and Kenny.

"We'd never had a fire in the whole time we've been here," says Connie Matthews.

When Shirley knocked on her neighbours' door, the only person home was Stuart Matthews, Connie and Gary's 23-year-old son. His parents were at a wedding in Newcastle.

Just before the wedding ceremony, Connie Matthews had received a notification about the bushfire via a social media page set up by the residents of Pringles Road to stay in touch with each other. Then Stuart had managed to get a call out on the landline.

"He was scared," Connie recalls.

The parents' advice was direct: "Get the dog and leave."

Connie and Gary Matthews resolved to remain for the ceremony - "It was very challenging because we didn't want to distract from the occasion" - then head home.

But the drive back to Martinsville was tense. They had lost communication with their son, and they didn't know where he was.

"You don't know what to think," Connie Matthews says. "We saw the smoke as we were leaving Charlestown, we knew that was our fire."

Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade members. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade members. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

Through Stuart's girlfriend, who was waiting at the end of Pringles Road, the Matthews learned their son was still at home, and "that allayed our fears". Once the road had been closed, he had to stay.

All that everyone could do was wait, as the fight against the fires raged on. Luke Masters says there were about 40 appliances and at least 180 personnel on the ground, as well as four aircraft battling the blazes from above.

Brigades had come from as far away as Sydney's Northern Beaches to help.

At one point, at least 20 properties were under immediate threat.

The RFS' District Manager, Superintendent Viki Campbell, says there were plans in place, in case the fire pushed further east towards more properties, "not the least, the township of Cooranbong", about six kilometres away.

But Mother Nature relented.

Rural Fire Service members fighting the Martinsville blazes. Picture: Marina Neil

Rural Fire Service members fighting the Martinsville blazes. Picture: Marina Neil

"We were blessed with a front that came through, and a wind change," Superintendent Campbell says, explaining the westerly shifted to become a southerly.

The community was also blessed by the extraordinary combined effort of ordinary humans who confronted the flames.

Martinsville brigade member Colin Amery says it wasn't just the fires that posed a threat.

"During the fire, you could hear the trees crashing down all the time," says Amery, who has been in the local RFS for 17 years.

"This is the biggest [fire] in Martinsville in that time."

Joel Eddy in the bush behind his family's home. Picture: Marina Neil

Joel Eddy in the bush behind his family's home. Picture: Marina Neil

SOON after 5pm, Leah Eddy received the call she had been waiting and praying for. It was from Joel.

He told his wife about the fire's toll.

"It burnt most of our property, but our house is still here."

"He's not an emotional person," Leah says of her husband, "but you could hear it in his voice."

Around the same time, Connie and Gary Matthews were allowed through the roadblock to return home, and to their son. Connie was stunned by the sight of flames as they drove along Pringles Road, but what really surprised her was "the heat through the car window".

They arrived home to find everyone and everything was fine. The Matthews offered for the firefighters to draw water from their pool, but they didn't need to.

However, dams around the area were used in the battle against the flames.

Water is drawn from a dam to replenish the Martinsville brigade's light tanker. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

Water is drawn from a dam to replenish the Martinsville brigade's light tanker. Picture: Joerg Hofmann, Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade

And while the worst seemed over, it was a battle that went on through the night and into the next day. Control lines were pushed in with a dozer. Brigade members who had been away on the Saturday came in as reinforcements.

Joerg Hofmann, an international airline pilot, and his partner, Martin Zarka, a research scientist, had moved to Martinsville from inner Sydney about 18 months ago. They joined the Martinsville brigade soon after coming to town.

On the Sunday, they were sent to bushland along Watagan Road.

"When we got there, [the fire] was really intense, it was going up the hill," Hofmann says.

While properties were saved, so much was lost. Martin Zarka points out rock orchids shrivelled and scorched on a boulder.

"It takes years for them to grow; each one, 10, 20 years," Zarka says.

Volunteer firefighter Martin Zarka looks at the scorched rock orchids. Picture: Scott Bevan

Volunteer firefighter Martin Zarka looks at the scorched rock orchids. Picture: Scott Bevan

About 217 hectares were burnt in the Martinsville fires. The patrolling and extinguishing of small outbreaks would go on for days.

"If you get complacent, and it gets hot, and the wind comes up, it could flare up again," explains Tony Wright, a part-time solicitor who has been in the brigade for about 11 years.

The threat has kept flaring. On Tuesday, when the state prepared for "catastrophic" fire conditions, and on Wednesday, the Martinsville volunteers had to return to where they had already beaten blazes, including on the hill above the Eddys' home.

"The ground has been holding the heat," explains Luke Masters, and the burnt leaves, which are "drier than paper", have been dropping from the trees, providing fresh fuel.

Pringles Road, with the left side of this section largely untouched by fire, while the other side of the road has been burnt. Picture: Marina Neil

Pringles Road, with the left side of this section largely untouched by fire, while the other side of the road has been burnt. Picture: Marina Neil

Masters had just returned from four days of fighting fires in the Glen Innes area, when he had to go back into the battle for the bush around Martinsville.

"I'm knackered," he says. "And we're not even into summer yet, that's the scary bit.

"Working full-time and trying to manage this as well, it takes a toll, not just on each firefighter but their families, and sometimes their work.

"A lot of people don't even understand we're volunteers.

"When you talk to them, they're like, 'Oh, don't you get paid while you're on the job?'. 'No, we don't get paid at all'."

The Eddy family inspecting the bush just behind their home. Picture: Marina Neil

The Eddy family inspecting the bush just behind their home. Picture: Marina Neil

JOEL and Leah, Tom and Hudson Eddy are walking across the ashes under the singed and charred trees at the back of their home, finding signs of life and hope.

The father strokes the burnished leaves of a xanthorrhoea and says to his sons, "This will turn green. It will all come back, nice and green."

Like their neighbours, the Eddys say they will be better prepared for bushfires, reviewing and improving their survival plans.

"We always knew we would leave, but in terms of what we'd take...," says Leah.

"If the fire had come through, we would have lost everything, except literally the clothes on our back."

The Eddy children in the bush behind their home. Picture: Marina Neil

The Eddy children in the bush behind their home. Picture: Marina Neil

Yet to Leah Eddy, this burnt landscape so close to the family's home is not just a reminder of how they almost lost everything.

It is also a symbol of the courage of the Rural Fire Service members and the beauty of human nature, when it is sorely tested.

"It's humbling to think all these people turned up to help, who don't know you," she says.

"You could walk past them in the street and not know them, and you think, 'They could be the people who gave up their weekend to save your house'."

Members of the Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade. Picture: Scott Bevan

Members of the Martinsville Rural Fire Brigade. Picture: Scott Bevan

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