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5 January 2020

Surviving an Australian Hell

This was the view of the firestorm from
inside the truck. The Markham's had to
battle this red hell with minimal
protective clothing.
A man trapped inside firestorm describes harrowing battle

"The flames were 40 metres tall, it sucked all the oxygen out of the air… at one point we lost my dad and brother around the other side of the house and I thought for sure they were dead. It was terrifying."

Sam Markham, a landscape photographer, has described in detail the harrowing day his family nearly lost everything. With minimal protective gear, and fire hoses left over from his uncle's firefighting days, the family fought to save their lives and NSW home from inside a firestorm on the south coast on New Year's Eve.

The fire was the same blaze a Fire and Rescue NSW crew were filmed battling their way through in Parma, near Nowra, four days ago. The crew had knocked on the family's door before getting stuck in the inferno at the family's front gate.

"I've lived on the south coast all my life and I've never seen or felt anything like it," Mr Markham told 9news.com.au.

The 22-year-old said he had been monitoring the fire front online all day. His mother, father, sister, brother, and three friends were at their house waiting for word on what to do next.

It was at 2pm a surreal humming started. What unfolded over the next hour was something out of a nightmare.

"It sounded like nothing you could imagine, this humming noise… like jet engines, that was the fire," he said.

"At 2.30pm we had the fire crew knock on the door saying, 'it's going to come straight for you, if the southerly hits, there's not much we can do for you.' "Two of the trucks went down the road, one of them was the truck that got stuck.

"In the next thirty minutes it slowly got darker and darker, my dad used to be in fuel haulage, so we put on fire-retardant shirts, we looked like a little fire crew.

"Then over the next five minutes it just went pitch black, like someone had turned the lights out. This was around 3pm. You could not see anything. We're all standing there, and then the embers started to drop.

"We were putting them out, but it was doing nothing – they started to drop, and drop, and drop. It went quiet, the easterly stopped, you could hear a pin drop, then 10 seconds later, didn't have time to think, it was like someone had opened the oven door and turned the fan on. That was the southerly," Mr Markham said.

The fierce southerly sent 40-metre-high flames roaring up the gully towards the property. The winds and heat were so intense that it sucked every bit of oxygen out of the air.

"I felt the back of my hands start to melt to the back of the hose… I dropped everything and ran to the left-hand side of the house and pinned myself up against the roller door and the fire sucked all the oxygen out of the air. You'd try to breathe and you'd realise, 'wait I didn't get anything', and you'd try again, and you still weren't getting anything," he said. 

Mr Markham located his mother, an asthma sufferer, on the other side of the house and quickly took her inside, a safe refuge, which had formed an air pocket.

At that point everyone but Mr Markham's brother and father were inside the house, so he once again ventured into the inferno in search of them.

"I found my father up against a shipping container. He had turned the hose on himself, he couldn't breathe… he was trying to put some protection between him and the fire. It was probably just panic," he said. 

"The worst of it, the lack of oxygen, lasted while we were in the house for those two or so minutes."

By some miracle the family and their home came out unscathed. But there was a moment Mr Markham thought they wouldn't make it.
"To be honest when I ran around the side of my house, the heat of this thing…I thought 'nup.' There was a moment there I thought we were all dead. If I didn't run, it probably would have cooked us alive." he said.

Mr Markham and his family are just a few of the Australians caught up in a bushfire crisis which is devastating the south coast of NSW. 

Thousands of people have today continued their exodus from the south coast, after an evacuation order was sent to the fire-hit holiday hotspot ahead of catastrophic conditions developing over the weekend.

The NSW government has declared a third state of emergency of the bushfire season ahead of the re-elevated fire risk over the weekend, but Mr Markham said his family won't leave.

"Everything is burnt to a crisp within 10 kms of us – it could come back, but I figure we're pretty safe now."

Mr Markham took this photo approximately 20 minutes after the main fire front had passed. He said the ground was glowing. (Instagram / sam_markham_)

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