Sunday 26 January 2020

Australia wildfires: Irish expat says son was saved from 'apocalyptic' fireball after 'miraculous' change in wind direction

More than 200 wildfires are burning across Australia’s two most populous states (Twitter@NSWRFS/AP)
More than 200 wildfires are burning across Australia’s two most populous states (Twitter@NSWRFS/AP)
A water-bombing helicopter tackles the fires in eastern Victoria (State Government of Victoria/AP)
A bushfire rages in Bairnsdale in Victoria state, Australia
A pedestrian wears a mask as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia

Allison Bray

An Irish expat whose son narrowly escaped an ‘apocalyptic’ fireball headed straight towards him, has said a ‘miraculous’ change in wind direction saved his life.

Cork native Catherine Sutton-Brady, who lives in Sydney but is originally from Winter’s Hill, told of her son's lucky escape as he and a group of his Australian friends fled to the beach in the fire-ravaged town of Mallacoota.

Massive bushfires have been burning out of control in the region on the Victoria coast, with around 4,000 residents and tourists fleeing to the beach to escape the inferno on Monday night.

Oisin Sutton-Brady, who was on a camping trip to the seaside beauty spot, found himself staring down a massive fireball that threatened to engulf him and the others.

“They could hear gas bottles exploding in properties and caravans. Not only was it completely apocalyptic, it was like a war zone,” she told presenter Deirdre O’Shaughnessy in an interview from Australia on Cork’s 96Fm earlier today.

After the sky turned an eerie black colour, the evacuees were told “that when the second (mayday) siren went off that they would need to get in the water and put their heads under water as that’s the only way they’d be safe from the fire,” Ms Sutton-Brady said.

“Luckily, by some miracle just before the fireball hit them, an 80 km/hr gust of wind took it in the other direction,” she said.

Oisin and his friends were among the first to be evacuated from the disaster as the Australian naval vessels the MV Sycamore and HMAS Choules began what local MP Darren Chester, called an “unprecedented mass relocation of civilians” from the town.

Oisin was en route to Melbourne where he and the other evacuees were to be housed in a naval evacuation centre following their 20-hour journey.

Before he left and spoke with his mother by phone, he also paid tribute to the volunteer rescuers, she told the radio show.

“One of the things he wanted to say is that without those volunteer firefighters they’d all be dead,” she said.

“He just cannot say enough how great those guys are. They stopped defending property and just stood in a ring around all the people on the beach and on the lakeside to defend them against what was a huge ball of fire coming towards them,” she said.

Ms Sutton-Brady made the comments as one of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history was underway today ahead of hot weather and strong winds that are forecast to worsen devastating wildfires raging across the country.

More than 200 fires were burning, and warnings of extreme danger to come today prompted mass evacuations.

Traffic was gridlocked as people fled and firefighters escorted convoys of evacuees.

Navy ships were called in to take hundreds of people stranded on beaches.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews declared a disaster across much of the eastern part of the state, allowing the government to order evacuations in an area with as many as 140,000 permanent residents and tens of thousands more on holiday.

“If you can leave, you must leave,” Andrews said.

In South Australia state, fire officials said the weather conditions were cause for concern because fires were still burning or smouldering.

“The ignition sources are already there,” Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones said.

“There are millions of sparks out there ready to go if they break containment lines.”

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has made this season the worst on record. About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned, at least 19 people have been killed, and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.

This week, at least 448 homes have been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast and dozens were burned in Victoria.

Ten deaths have been confirmed in the two states this week, and Victoria authorities also say 28 people are missing.

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