Unsung heroes of the RFS: Warwick Chevalley
THERE are about 1200 volunteers within the Clarence Valley Rural Fire Service who selflessly donate their time to saving lives and property from bushfires in our community.
Most of these people don't do what they do for the glory. But they all thoroughly deserve our recognition.
While we can't feature them all, our Unsung Heroes of the RFS series presents a snapshot of some of these everyday people in our community doing all they can to keep you safe when the harsh realities of the Australian climate bite.
The first in this series is Fine Flower RFS captain Warwick Chevalley, a contract musterer by trade who calculated he had fought fires as a volunteer for 32 days in a three-month period.
Mr Chevalley has never seen fire move so fast as the day "s*** hit the fan" from the Long Gully fire on October 8.
The Fine Flower crew fought valiantly to save properties at Ewingar the same day Bob Lindsay, 77, and Gwen Hyde, 69 were killed at nearby Coongbar - the first of 28 casualties of the Australia bushfire season so far.
"We were on the other side of the river and couldn't stop it," Mr Chevalley said.
"It just went. I've never seen fire move so fast. It jumped the river at about 4.30 and they reckon it was there by six o'clock."
Mr Chevalley said with the high fuel loads, lack of water availability and crews stretched to their limits, little more could be done to save the isolated community from devastation that day - a sentiment that has been echoed on numerous occasions throughout the country in the three months following.
"There's only so much you can do with what you've got and you try to protect houses the best you can," he said.
"We had bad luck. We lost a house which was heart-wrenching for myself and the fella with me.
"We ran out of water and had to go find water because there was no water about and by the time we came back the house was alight.
"Losing someone's house when you've fought on it for a fair while is pretty hard on you. But we did save a secondary house and a shipping container and he was very happy we done that for him. "
That setback hasn't stopped the contract musterer fight fires for 32 days in three months as a volunteer.
His brigade has been busy fighting off blazes from all directions, and most of his local district has been blackened.
"There's so many fires going and no way to control them," he said. "The season's been that way, it's been hard to control, too many fires and not enough firefighters on the ground and not enough trucks, which you can't help.
"We started at the Washpool fire, then we went to Ewingar fire, the Long Gully fire, it jumped, became the Busby Flat fire, then the Washpool fire jumped the river and ended up in our area. We got it under control, then the Myall Creek fire came in from the eastern side of us back into country we'd already contained. Then the Washpool fire ended up in the Chloe Trail fire, so it was all burnt right around us, not a blade of green grass."
Recent rain has brought some reprieve. But the threat is far from over.
"It is starting to get a bit of green feed about, but if we don't get rain there are places that will still burn later on."
Mr Chevalley believes more efforts need to be made outside bushfire season to provide adequate hazard reduction to prevent similar disasters in the future.
"Conditions this year haven't been good for hazard reduction, but a lot of places haven't been burnt for a fair while and there could've been something done on them earlier on."
Mr Chevalley's brigade was drawn out of a hat to receive $600 from funds raised in a charity auction at the Clarence Valley Sports Awards, which was used to purchase a fridge from BCF to put on their fire truck to help keep food and water cool during long days on the fire front.
"When you've been out for a fair while it all starts getting hot," Mr Chevalley said. "With a fridge you can keep it cold.
"We've got one on our other truck, and were thinking of purchasing another one, and have been able to thanks to the generosity of The Daily Examiner, Rodney Nugent and Clarence Valley Sports Awards.
"We're only a small brigade, but every little bit helps."
This week Shane Warne's baggy green cap fetched $1,007,500 in aid of bushfire relief, smashing the record price earned for the cap of Sir Donald Bradman, which went for $425,000 in 2003.
Rich business people, celebrities, sports stars and "even the government" are fronting up astronomical sums of money in aid of bushfire response organisations and victims in the wake of the current crisis gripping the nation.
But it didn't happen over night. People like Grafton-raised former Paralympian Rodney Nugent helped get the ball rolling with when he decided to auction a garment from Seoul '88 and his Australian tracksuit from Barcelona '92 as special guest at the Clarence Valley Sports Awards, which ultimately raised $1200 for Clarence Valley Rural Fire Service brigades.
Held at Grafton District Services Club on November 9 the day after bushfire devastated Nymboida, Mr Nugent made the spur of the moment decision as he drove up the Pacific Highway for the event from his home at Lake Cathie with medals and memorabilia in tow.
It one of the first selfless acts for the fire effort, and has now been replicated all over the world.
"I'm just glad to see how much everyone is getting behind it," Mr Nugent said.
"The RFS looks like it's going to be well looked after.
"Little people like us making donations really pushed the envelope for stars and people who are quite wealthy to really get behind it.
"There were lots of people putting up GoFundMe pages, and it was the ordinary every day Australians that really made the stars and probably even the government think we better do something.
"It was people like us that really got the ball rolling."
More than $1200 was raised in the auction, thanks to winning bidders Darran Forbes - who in a heartfelt, emotional gesture on the night donated the Australian tracksuit back to Nugent's family - and the family of AWD athlete Mitch Christiansen.
"The tracksuit is safely back in my mother's hands, probably won't be able to get my hands on that again," Nugent said. "It'll be locked away and I won't be able to touch it."
Mr Nugent handed half the money to the sports awards committee to distribute to Clarence Valley RFS brigades, and took half for causes closer to his hometown.
"Lake Cathie RFS was getting lots of different donations, so I've gone onto lots of website and GoFundMe pages to donate," he said.
"As long as it's making a small difference, that's the aim of that auction.
"I had no idea that we would get that sort of money. That's every day Australians putting their hand in the pocket."
After Grafton Ghosts donated their $500 prizemoney as Telstra Team of the Year, the pool amounted to $1200. This has been split between Fine Flower and Iluka brigades, who were drawn out of a hat by Clarence Valley RFS Superintendent Stuart Watts.
Iluka RFS will put their $600 towards a thermal imaging camera on their truck.
"It was great that Rodney put it out there on the spot and the reaction to it was really good," Clarence Valley Sports Awards treasurer Bruce Carle said.
"I was really surprised. And I was pleased the Ghosts also put their donation to it.
"All these things help the fireys in some way. It's a pity we can't help them all, but I think all the donations coming in at the moment should help in that respect."
Mr Chevalley said it was heartwarming to see the community so supportive of the fire volunteers.
"We'd go out and come back and there'd be slices and tea waiting for you at 2.30 in the morning. The local community has been really good," he said.
"A lot of brigades might need a little bit of gear, but I reckon any money they haven't spent has got to go to people who have lost everything. Most firefighters would say the same. We don't do it for the glory, we only do it because we love it."
During the peak of the Clarence Valley bushfires up to 300 visiting volunteers from other parts of NSW, interstate and overseas were stationed in Grafton to assist with the effort.
Mr Chevalley said his heart now goes out to his fellow volunteers on the South Coast.
"A lot of those guys came up here to help out and now they're going through it all again," he said.
"You feel sorry for them, because we're all family."
• To nominate a fire volunteer for our Unsung Heroes series please email firstname.lastname@example.org and include the volunteer's name, brigade, role and why they deserve to be recognised.