Bushfires: The brave men and women who defended Stanthorpe


FOR the first time, the Granite Belt's heroic firefighters have told how they narrowly escaped with their lives while fighting the ferocious Stanthorpe bushfire last September.

About 50 crews battled 30m flames from about 1am on September 6.

The blaze started at Plant Rd, on the outskirts of Stanthorpe, when backpackers lit up a wood barbecue and the embers were blown into dry grass across the township by strong ice-cold winds.

The fire eventually spread to nearby Applethorpe, creating a wall of flames that bore down on Stanthorpe for more than 12 hours.

The Sugarloaf Rural Fire Brigade was in the thick of the action that night, and the group has revealed to The Sunday Mail just how deadly the situation was.

Volunteers from the Sugarloaf Rural Fire Brigade (from left) Eric McCulloch, Garry Tutt, Gary Kelley, Allan Unold and Lauren Kelley. Picture: Adam Head

Volunteers from the Sugarloaf Rural Fire Brigade (from left) Eric McCulloch, Garry Tutt, Gary Kelley, Allan Unold and Lauren Kelley. Picture: Adam Head

"When we arrived there were seven houses under threat," 2nd officer Gary Kelley said.

"There was an old fella standing there with his hose... I pulled him out of the garage - I said 'consider it lost and get out'.

"We got on the radio to call for backup and they had nothing, so that was it.

"We just said 'we're it'."

The size of the fire meant all available units in the district were in use. If crews ran into trouble they had to fall back, or risk death.

After Mr Kelley pulled an old man from his burning property at Stanthorpe, the Sugarloaf crew were tasked to Quart Pot Creek where the fire also raged.

"We got sent to the creek and we all lined up to try and stop it there and it just jumped right over the top of us," Mr Kelley said.

"I hit the siren and pulled the boys out.

"There's where we changed tactics - we actually lit a fire to burn back into the main fire and we beat it."

A downpour weeks later extinguished the remaining flames which were being monitored by firefighters.

In pictures: Queensland fire devastation

Looking down on Stanthorpe from Mt Marlay. 1 of 33 The Massie Rural Fire Service shared these photos of their effots fighting the Stanthorpe Fire on Saturday September 7. 2 of 33 Lana Estrich and her daughter Isabella Quirk 9 pose for a photograph at their home on Caves Road, Stanthorpe, Saturday 7, 2019. They nearly lost their house in the fire last night. (AAP/Image Sarah Marshall) 3 of 33 Rural firefighter Andre Rogers from Nerangba cools down after battling Bushfires at Canungra in The Gold Coast Hinterland. Photograph : Jason O'Brien 4 of 33

Mr Kelley believes the blaze was one of the biggest Stanthorpe had ever seen.

He said it was on par with the 2003 Stanthorpe fire that claimed the life of one person and burnt more than 50,000ha in the Granite Belt and towards Dalby and Toowoomba.

"I've never seen a fire like (the September bushfire) in this region ever," he said.

Despite the team's exceptional work, communication officer Lauren Kelley, said a sense of guilt began to consume her in the weeks that followed.

Ms Kelley was responsible for directing the crew from the control centre that night.

"It was about five days later that I actually sat back and thought 'holy crap, that was actually insane'," she said.

"Five days later I was still fine... It was about three to four weeks later that I started going 'it's kind of my fault'.

"It's not (my fault), but at the time it was very much my decisions that lead to those houses not being saved."

Today the crew members have resumed their day jobs, but say they are braced for more fires in the coming months and later this year.