'I Never Questioned Being A Firefighter, But It Was Really Hard To Get Back Out There'

Three months ago, in the early hours of New Years' Eve, Siobhan Threlfall thought her life was moments from ending.

The 25 year old had been a volunteer firefighter in her home town of Nerrigundah in south-east NSW since she was a teenager. But by all accounts, the flames that would end up destroying much of the tiny gold rush town were the worst anyone had ever seen.

The Threlfall family's yard in flames. Image: Supplied.

"We had buildings that were destroyed that had been there since the town began, they had been through hundreds and hundreds of bushfires," Threlfall told 10 daily.

"The fire was something none of us had seen, and none of us were trained for really."



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Threlfall and her sister Skye first shared their story with 10 News First, a few days after their terrifying ordeal.

They told of the horror as the firestorm raged towards them and how it felt as though the flames were going to hit them any moment as they watched house after house go up in flames.

"I ran outside and all you could hear was the deafening roar through like the whole valley and the sky was red," Threlfall said at the  time.

"It spot fired down near the bridge and I look down the hill and there's a house that exploded ... then this house exploded and then suddenly flames were everywhere.

Skye and her mum. Image: Supplied.

As they fought to protect their own home, the sisters recalled how they were almost overrun before they were forced to flee to safety, driving to the fire shed where they were trapped by five-metre high flames just metres away.

Inside the shed with them were a number of fellow crew members, including their father and brother -- who they thought they had lost to the fire.

At the time, Threlfall said the crew put all their faith in the sprinkler system.

"We didn't know if it was the end," she said.

Now, she is certain it's what saved their lives.

The Threlfall family. Image: Supplied.

It's been more than three months, but Threlfall says there are still days where she finds it hard to cope with the memories.

"It gets to my mind a bit," she told 10 daily.

Back home in Nerrigundah, the damage is still visible everywhere you look.

While the town has been shown a lot of support from the wider community, with volunteers coming in to help install toilets, showers and a laundry at the community hall which survived the blaze -- residents are still waiting for the rubble of the destroyed homes and structures to be cleared.

Image: 10 News First.

Threlfall's parents only got back power last week, while some of their neighbours are still living in caravans.

"So much of the Shire was lost and so many houses were lost and because we are a small community and we are in the bush, we aren't a priority," she said.

"Someone has to be last so I think that's why it's taking so long but it's just hard for everyone to look at that every day."

She says while most people have chosen to stay in the town and rebuild, many in the community are still waiting for insurance money.

Some residents whose homes were over 100 years old are unable to find original plans of their building, while others with only partial damage are still waiting on builders to assess the damage.

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Despite the horror fire season only just coming to an end, Threlfall said preparations for the next one started the very next day after the blaze subsided.

"I was walking around seeing what survived, what didn't survive, what do we need to do for next time," she said.

That's been on the front of our minds, we need to make sure we are prepared if it ever happens again.

She said a top priority for many people in the town is making sure their sprinkler systems are made out of copper or metal and connected to petrol, "to make sure the water keeps going even when the power goes off."

"It's going to make a big difference," Threlfall said.

The town's fire crew is also trying to source the safest possible equipment they can get.

Threlfall said because they are a small brigade, they don't have the newest protective equipment or the newest trucks.

"We didn't really have any face masks until after the fire, so just making sure we have all those things is really important," she said.

Siobhan Threlfall. Image: Supplied.

Threlfall lost her eyesight for around three days after the New Years' Eve blaze. Days later she would also have to visit the doctor because of her sore lungs.

"I had gotten a lot of firefighting foam, fire extinguisher dust and just a lot of smoke in my eyes," she said.

"Toward the end of the day my eyesight just deteriorated and it was really painful to open my eyes and then towards midnight I just couldn't open them anymore.

"It was painful to have them closed but it was more painful to have them open, and it wasn't until mid-morning that I could finally open them again the following day."

Siobhan Threlfall. Image: Supplied.

Asked whether her experience on New Years' Eve made her reconsider going back out to fight fires, she said she never questioned being a firefighter, but it had made it harder to go back out in the field.

"You felt like every fire was going to be like that one," she said.

"Going out on the fire line again after that, every time you saw the sky go red you thought, 'oh my god, it's happening again'."

"You just kind of had to put it in your mind that this is a normal fire... it's not happening again, but it was really hard to get back out there."

Siobhan Threllfall will be sharing her story on SBS' Insight at 8.30pm on Tuesday.