A TEAM of Riverna firefighters have been commended for their outstanding bravery after facing a terrifying scenario while fighting the Black Summer Bushfires.
The combined Riverina South Strike Team from the Riverina Zone and Southern Border team was deployed to assist in the Shoalhaven district in December, 2019, and it was there where they found themselves trapped between two converging fire fronts.
NSW Rural Fire Service's Bradley Stewart said the team was "effectively in the eye of the storm", but they never gave up.
"These guys lived through a fire event that very few firefighters will ever experience within their careers," the Riverina Zone Operational Officer said.
"It was an exceptionally dangerous situation, and we are incredibly fortunate that none of them were injured, or worse."
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After strike team leaders Rob Thomas and Peter Bye separated from their unit to report on the status of the fire at Deans Gap, the entire Strike Team found themselves faced with what Mr Stewart described as "exceptionally rare" fire behaviour.
The Tianjara and Currowan fires were just 500 metres from the pair, converging and coming straight for them.
After three failed attempts to get back to their strike team, Rob and Peter's only option was to withdraw to safety and wait for conditions to ease.
Whilst Rob and Peter were trying to reunite with their fellow firefighters, the strike team had taken up position to defend a cluster of isolated rural properties. It was whilst they where performing property protection that they were overrun by the two converging fires.
The intensity and ferocity of the fire forced the strike team to move to a defendable area and take shelter in their trucks, but when one of their vehicles ran low on water, members nearby left the safety of their own appliance and connected their fellow crew up to water from their tanker so they would be safe.
Rob and Peter were then able to reunite with their fellow firefighters with the assistance of a crew from St George's Basin.
The entire team has since received a Commissioner's Certificate of Commendation (Unit) during Saint Florian's Day, named after the Patron Saint of firefighters.
The day, celebrated on Tuesday, traditionally sees firefighters and their families come together to recognise those who have gone above and beyond, showing incredible acts of bravery in protecting the community.
Rob Thomas said the recognition came as a "total surprise".
He said while the appreciation was encouraging, they didn't do it for the praise.
"We all do this for one reason, which is that we want to give back to our community," he said.
"When they need us, we step up and do what we can. Everyone here is the same, we do it for the communities and do what is needed to be done."
Mr Thomas said he and other members of the Riverina South Strike Team have returned to the Shoalhaven area together since the fires, and the appreciation from those they helped was clear.
"We have stayed in contact with some who lost their homes in that area, and everyone is so appreciative of our efforts," he said.
"We are happy to call many of them friends now."
Peter Bye said the return visit was difficult to face, dredging up the trauma they experienced, but that the recognition on Saint Florian's Day was a pleasant surprise.
"Everyone has been a little encouraged by it, and even though Rob and I were named specifically, it was a big team of us who all did their part to get through such a traumatic event," he said.
"The crew from Saint Georges Basin also needs to be commended, without their help, we wouldn't have gotten through what we got through."
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