The NSW volunteer firefighter who died in a “cyclonic wind” fire event on Monday has been named as 28-year-old newlywed Sam McPaul.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described McPaul as “a much loved and respected local firefighter” who leaves behind a wife who is pregnant with their first child.
“He leaves behind, tragically, a beautiful wife - Megan - who is pregnant with their first child, that’s due on 4 May,” Fitzsimmons told media at a conference on Tuesday.
“As you would expect, the family is grieving and it’s been a very difficult night.
“Megan and Sam have been married now for nearly 18 months, they were married only in April of 2018, so we’ve got a completely devastated family, a devastated local community at has been an extraordinary loss.”
The tragic accident happened while crews were fighting the Green Valley Fire on River Road, 70 km east of Albury near the Victorian boarder.
“The local crews at the accident scene described it as truly horrific, a fire tornado, or a chance they believe may have been a collapse of a column that formed above the main fire front,” Fitzsimmons said.
“That resulted in cyclonic winds that moved across the fire ground and lifted up a 10-12 tonne fire truck and flipped it on the roof, trapping the people inside and tragically killing Sam in the process.”
Two other firefighters in McPaul’s truck were also injured.
The driver, was taken to hospital with injuries but was released last night and another firefighter has been transported to the Prince Alfred Hospital in Melbourne with serious injuries, including burn injuries.
A second truck was also flipped by the severe winds on the same firegound.
“Through the same weather event, we also saw another vehicle and a couple of firefighters enveloped by flames as this weather event moved through the fire ground.
“Those two firefighters suffered burns to their face and their airways. We understand that at least one of them was sedated and insubated and both were flown for medical treatment to Sydney, to Concord Hospital. The group officer in the command vehicle, a volunteer, suffered some injuries. There was some bruising, some muscle damage and minor injuries, but was released last night from hospital as well.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lead tributes for McPaul.
“Devastated at the terrible news of the loss of another volunteer firefighter and two others injured near Jingellic in southern NSW where a truck has rolled over. In a separate vehicle another firefighter has been injured,” the PM Tweeted.
“This is awful news for the families and our sympathies are with them. These are testing times. We are so grateful for the courage and dedication of our firefighters.”
The incident took the death toll from the country’s raging bushfires to nine and added pressure on authorities to reconsider New Year celebration plans for the city of Sydney.
Around 100 fires are burning across Australia, with as many as 14 “emergency” warnings in place for Victoria while fires are also threatening homes and infrastructure in South Australia and Tasmania.
Tens of thousands were evacuated as “columns of fire” fuelled by extreme heat and high winds bore down on the popular tourist region of East Gippsland in Victoria.
Bushfires that have plagued the country’s eastern coast for weeks flared again to danger levels in East Gippsland, an area encompassing two national parks, lakes and coastal plains that is half the size of Belgium.
By late afternoon, officials warned holiday makers to stay off the roads because of thick smoke and unpredictable, fast-moving fires, adding that it was now too late for people who had not left the region to do so.
“Leaving now would be deadly,” authorities said.
The state’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said “columns of fire” were punching into the atmosphere and generating their own erratic weather systems.
“There’s lightning coming out of these columns,” Crisp told reporters. “It is unpredictable, it’s dangerous out there.”
With some firefronts stretching more than 1,000 km and temperatures reaching as high as 43 Celsius, Crisp said the danger will remain high into the evening.
Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares - an area the size of Japan ― across Australia in recent weeks.
At the Wallagaraugh River Retreat in Mallacoota, a coastal town in East Gippsland, owner Lynette Sykes told Reuters her property was evacuated this morning.
“We were not going to take any risks with people’s lives,” Sykes said.
A video posted on social media site Facebook showed tourist Nicholas Costanzo escaping from the Victorian bushfire on a narrow two-way road dotted with fire trucks as thick smoke blurred vision. “Please pray for us,” he said.