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Queensland's bushfire emergency uncovers reluctant hero firefighter

By Melanie Vujkovic, Friday September 13, 2019 - 12:14 EST
ABC licensed image
Ballandean rural firefighter Aaron Cox had to fight to save his own home as well as battle bushfires in NSW. - ABC licensed

Ballandean rural firefighter Aaron Cox — whose viral photo captured the hearts of Queenslanders following a horror bushfire emergency — says he's glad the image gave people an avenue to thank the wider firefighting community.

"It's not about me, I'm just a small part of the machine [but] in one way it's good that I'm probably just a face that everybody can say thank you to for all the good work that all the people have done out here," he said.

"My name is just irrelevant, it's more about the yellow suit."

Speaking on ABC Radio Brisbane, Mr Cox said he was overwhelmed by the attention since the photo, taken by his wife Bindi, went viral.

The image was taken just after Mr Cox, who is a volunteer firefighter, had fought to save his own home from the blaze last Monday.

"This is a man who has fought hard for his community since Friday and has just finished the epic fight to save his own house when he had nothing left in the tank to begin with," Ms Cox wrote on Facebook when she posted the image.

"I know you think this photo makes you look vulnerable but in that moment we both felt this.

"No-one understands what a bushfire does to you until you have to fight."

Mr Cox was first called to battle the fires last Friday in Tenterfield, just over the New South Wales border, then had to rush back to Stanthorpe about four hours later.

"So when we got into town, the fire was well and truly going, and looked like a bomb had gone off," he said.

"We worked that fire for two or three days and then on the Monday morning we were all having a bit of a rest, a bit of a day off and I was actually off the property and got a phone call from a mate and another firie to say there was another fire coming up the back of the ridge.

"I returned home, and after I got my gear on and moved a few things around I turned around and there was about 10 to 15 trucks here looking after it all ... because we've got a cottage business here, so we've got eight buildings on the property, so quite a bit to defend."

'The fire was that close it cracked windows in the house'

He said the photo was taken shortly after the fire had passed his house, and was moving through the bush towards other houses.

"So the trucks redeployed to look after them, and I wasn't in the crew because I had just returned home so I wasn't in a crew, I had no truck to go in, so I took five minutes to sit down and think about what had just gone on, and how lucky we were," he said.

"The fire was that close that it cracked windows in the house from the heat, and we had embers blow under the door.

"At that point, I had just finished putting out spot fires in my wife's hedge … and I just sat down and took a moment and thought 'what do I do now?' and that's when it all happened.

"It was overwhelming to have all of those people here."

He said it was that sense of gratitude that encouraged him to join the Rural Fire Service in the first place, after his home was protected from a fire in 2014.

"We were relatively new in the area at that point and I was just overwhelmed at how quickly they responded, so I joined up not long after that thinking 'well, it's not right that they should look after me and I can't look after them in return'," he said.

He said being on the front line of a raging bushfire was "terrifying".

"It's a strange situation to be in because you know it's dangerous and it's scary but you sort of just have to stop thinking that and think about what's the best way to tackle it," he said.

"You know that you're surrounded by good people and you've got the equipment that you need to do the job, and if anything really goes sideways you get out of the way, but it can be very terrifying at times."

'We're talking about a fire that actually encroached on Stanthorpe'

He said the severity of the bushfires in the Granite Belt was enormous.

"To only lose a few houses was an absolute miracle … because we're talking about a fire that actually encroached on Stanthorpe town," he said.

"This wasn't in the outskirts, this wasn't in paddocks and rural areas, this was actually in the town of Stanthorpe … it was a big deal."

Even though the fires there were believed to be accidentally lit, Mr Cox has pleaded with people who may throw a cigarette out the window to think again.

"The only thing you can really say to these people is, 'imagine losing everything you've ever worked … for everything you've ever had in your life time, that has ever meant anything to you and then ask yourself is it really worth throwing a match?'" he said.

"It's ridiculous … it's not just the people in the direct line of the fire, but it's also the people who have to walk towards that fire to help all those people out.

"It's not required, it's not necessary, you're not going to make a hero of yourself, your friends are not going to think you're cool, just don't do it."

He has encouraged people to visit the Granite Belt and help support the people who have been impacted by not only the bushfires, but the ongoing drought and water shortage crisis.


© ABC 2019

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