On the front line

Our alumni share their story of fighting one of Australia's worst bushfires

Australia’s Black Summer was like no other, with the bushfires that raged across the nation leaving many of us overwhelmed and in disbelief at the devastation they caused. During this extraordinary time, stories of the heroes doing battle on the frontline emerged.

As members of the Bawley Point Rural Fire Brigade, Karina and Peter Franke spent endless days battling the monstrous Currowan fires that ravaged thousands of hectares on the New South Wales South Coast.

It was literally a baptism of fire for the couple who had only recently answered the call for new brigade volunteers.

“We didn’t realise that literally six months into being in the brigade we would be faced by the worst bushfires our country has ever seen,” Karina says.

Their crew battled against 50 metre flames, fanned by gusty winds that engulfed the bush and threatened nearby properties.

At times they were left defending homes in the dark, with reduced visibility as a thick blanket of bushfire smoke descended around them.

“It’s hard to describe the noise and the smoke. In some areas you couldn’t see five metres in front of you – except for a bit of a red glow,” Peter says.

“You didn’t have time to think so as far as preparation goes, I don’t think anything could prepare you for what we saw. Your training just kicks in and you get on with it. 

“The fire was so enormous that it’s impossible to put it out. If there is a house to be saved, your whole efforts are put into saving that house,” he says.

Peter and Karina stepped in to do whatever was required, from holding hoses and pumping water to radioing and water bombing to help control burning.

“There was this one day at Bendalong that we were abseiling down this cliff face putting out this fire that just wouldn’t go out,” Karina explains. “Just stuff that you would never imagine that you’d be doing.”

Many seasoned firefighters reported that these were the worst bushfires they had ever experienced, pushing them to their very limits.

“There’s guys and girls that have been in that shed for 30 years who have never seen anything like it,” Peter says.

Being a rural fire brigade, there were a number of crew members whose own properties came under threat during the fires.

“One particular day, I was on a truck on a call-out doing some urgent property protection and, while we were doing that, my crew leader at the time got a call on his phone from his wife to discover their own property was under imminent threat. She was at home at the time.

“Only after we were released from our particular task, we got to his house as quickly as we could, just as the fire surrounded his house. His boat was actually on fire by this stage.

“It was a bit touch and go there at one stage, but we ended up saving his property,” he recalls.

The fires hit Bawley Point early in December last year and by Christmas and the New Year the threat had moved north to Bendalong, Manyana and Conjola and inland to Kangaroo Valley, with fire crews sharing the load.

Unlike Bawley Point where no homes were lost, at Conjola Park, less than 50 kilometres away, 89 homes and three lives were lost to the fires.

“Bawley was so lucky. It literally was just a change of wind,” Karina says.

“The fire came right up to the main road near the shops and then suddenly the wind changed directions and blew the fire north. Our house was right in the path of it. If the westerly had blown for another 10 minutes, the town would have been gone,” she says.

The damage and devastation would undoubtedly be much higher if not for the courage of Australia’s volunteer brigades who make up a vast majority of the country’s fire crews.

“The silver lining is that new volunteer applications have gone through the roof,” Peter says. 

“People who live in those communities saw what the volunteers were doing and now they are coming forward themselves to get involved and volunteer themselves. It’s created a real awareness among people in the community.”

But among the devastation, the pair also saw light out of the darkness.

“The community was amazing. During the fires, you walked into the kitchen in the shed and it was fully stocked with food and donations for the volunteers. But then also, afterwards, the support shown by the community to the firefighters, and also financially to the brigade, was extraordinary. They were just so grateful,” Peter shares.

Signs thanking the firefighters lined the road and donations were made to fund equipment in the fire shed.

Karina says she was grateful to be able to do something to help during the crisis.

“To actually be able to go out in the truck and contribute in some way for me was amazing,” she says.

The experience created an even stronger bond between members of their small brigade, which also includes Peter’s sister and 16-year-old niece.

“Having gone through what we have gone through, we’re like a little community within a community,” Peter says.

When they’re not busy fighting fires, the couple, who met while studying at UOW, are busy juggling volunteering with their day jobs and family commitments. Karina has a senior business manager role with the Department of Justice NSW and Peter is a solicitor and director at Heard McEwan Legal in Wollongong. Karina has also returned to UOW to study her Master of Business Administration.

Karina Franke

Bachelor of Arts (Psychology, Legal Studies), 2003
Bachelor of Laws, 2005

Peter Franke
Bachelor of Arts (History)/Bachelor of Laws, 2003