A “tight-knit” western Sydney volunteer firefighting brigade has been devastated after two firefighters were killed in the battle to contain a blaze that ripped through villages southwest of the city.
Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, from the Horsley Park brigade, were in a truck convoy near the town of Buxton late on Thursday when a tree fell into their path, prompting the vehicle to roll off the road.
The two men – both fathers of young children – died at the scene, while three other firefighters were injured and have been hospitalised. They had been able to independently free themselves from the crashed truck.
The fatal accident occurred at the end of an exhausting day during which it’s feared some 40 homes were lost in Buxton, Balmoral, Bargo and surrounding areas as the Green Wattle Creek blaze tore through the Wollondilly Shire.
“I understand they were a pretty tight-knit group,” RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said on Friday morning.
“This is quite a tight brigade and that will impact significantly on that group.
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“At the end of the day, everybody feels for these people and their families … people have got to try and put that aside and keep going.
“The immediate people around that crew, we will make arrangements for them to be excused from the fire ground if that’s what they wish, but often firefighters like to just get back to doing what they do … it’s a coping mechanism as well.”
Mr Rogers said commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons had spent the evening with the families of the dead firefighters.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the deaths of the volunteer firefighters was having a ripple effect in their communities and the firefighting fraternity.
Flags will be flown at half-mast throughout NSW on Friday.
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“These two brave young men who lost their lives represent, for us, the thousands and thousands of volunteers on the ground today and tomorrow and in the days coming who put their own life, their own safety on the line to protect others,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would be returning to Sydney as soon as possible after the deaths of the firefighters, whom he described as “amongst our most courageous Australians”.
Also on Thursday, three firefighters were also treated for burns after their truck at the Green Wattle Creek blaze was enveloped by flames.
Fire and Rescue NSW duty commander Inspector Kernin Lambert had described the bushfires conditions as deadly.
“Around the Balmoral village, we had two fire fronts come together and they merged. We were experiencing firestorm-type conditions,” Mr Lambert told the ABC.
The Green Wattle Creek blaze remained at emergency warning level early on Friday, along with the huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney.
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The neighbouring Kerry Ridge blaze and a fire on the NSW South Coast at Currowan were downgraded to a “watch and act” alert.
Insp Lambert said the Green Wattle Creek fire developed rapidly before bearing down on the village of Balmoral.
Crews faced winds over 100km/h and 60-metre-high flame fronts, stoking a fire so fierce it sucked the oxygen out of the air.
The NSW RFS officially says 20 homes may have been lost but Mr Rogers acknowledged there are reports 40 buildings were destroyed.
It’s unknown how many were houses.
Crews also continue to fight the 420,000-hectare Gospers Mountain blaze after a southerly wind change drove flames toward Bell in the upper Blue Mountains.
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Firefighters are hoping to make the most of lower temperatures across NSW on Friday before extreme weather returns on Saturday.
Bureau of Meteorology acting NSW manager Jane Golding says the next 24 hours will be cooler but the whole state will heat up again on Saturday.
Northwest winds mean smoke will return to coastal communities while Sydney’s west could hit 45C or higher. The majority of the state away from the coast will experience temperatures in the mid-to-high 40s.
A week-long state of emergency has been declared in NSW and a statewide total fire ban remains in place.
© AAP 2019