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The RFS firefighters who spent months battling Gospers Mountain blaze say it was 'a continuous beast'

By Mridula Amin, Kevin Nguyen and Philippa McDonald, Wednesday July 29, 2020 - 09:30 EST
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NSW RFS Superintendent Karen Hodges was in charge of the Gospers Mountain fire response. - ABC

Karen Hodges and Stacey Kent have never met, but the two women are bonded by their time in battle against Australia's biggest bushfire blaze in history.

What began as a lightning strike to a single tree, deep within the Wollemi National Park, grew to tear through more than a million hectares, leaving behind charred ground and memories to last a lifetime.

Superintendent Karen Hodges was the RFS Incident Controller for the Gospers Mountain fire, taking the lead on November 11 when the fire was declared a national disaster.

By the next day, it had quadrupled in size to 56,000 hectares.

"We could not control the fire the way we wanted to and the way we have in the past," Superintendent Hodges said.

"Nothing we did stopped it. No matter what we tried, it was just a continuous beast."

Overnight, 3,000 people became her responsibility. As devastating as it was, seeing the fire get more out of control each day, what remained front of mind were the human lives she was responsible for.

"My biggest fear was losing firefighters … given those firefighters were going out in those conditions or risking their lives every time they went out there."

'You gotta do what you gotta do'

Whether death was on the horizon is a thought that would cross volunteer firefighter Stacey Kent's mind every time she showed up to the Gospers frontline as part of Round Corner RFS, stationed in Kenthurst, near Dural.

"It always plays on your mind. What if it goes wrong?" she said.

"It's always there. But I guess you just try not to focus on that and focus on the work that's at hand."

The 26-year-old neonatal nurse often worked 24/7 — saving the lives of babies, then saving people's lives.

"It's pretty full-on. I was doing night shifts at the hospital and day shifts on the fire, and then night shifts on the fireground and day shifts at the hospital.

"So it was a lot of back and forth. I had two full-time shift work jobs, essentially. But you gotta do what you got to do."

Ms Kent knew people lost in the Victorian bushfires in 2010, which is what compelled her to join the RFS on her 16th birthday.

Last summer, she was part of the crucial firefighting efforts that helped contain the fire from crossing the Hawkesbury River and inching towards suburbs like Hornsby on Sydney's Upper North Shore.

If it had reached the urban infrastructure in these areas, the devastation would have been catastrophic.

"You don't forget the heat, the smoke, the noise of just the fire coming towards you and that feeling, you know. You don't forget," she said.

By the time heavy rain finally extinguished the fire in January and teams could let out a gasp of relief, Karen Hodges had been an incident controller for a marathon 62 days.

The fire had torn through 512,000 hectares of land since it ignited on October 26.

"I would just like to see myself as somebody who just did the job," said Superintendent Hodges.

"I've talked to a lot of my people. I just say to them, 'you did the best you could'.

"You had to make those decisions. And you need to hold your head high. And I do."


© ABC 2020

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