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'It's terrifying'... Belfast-born volunteer in Australia tells of fears as fires rage

Belfast-born Brian Cartmill
Belfast-born Brian Cartmill
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

As the fierce blazes continue to rage across Australia, a Northern Ireland man has been helping firefighters by transporting campsite bases to the areas worst affected.

Newtownbreda native Brian Cartmill lives in Melbourne in Victoria.

The 61-year-old has lived in Australia for 30 years and works as a truck driver, volunteering with his lorry during "fire season".

Nineteen people have died as a result of the bushfires raging through Australia, dozens remain missing and thousands of families are displaced.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already sent in troops, ships and planes to bushfire danger zones.

The fires were fuelled by record temperatures and several months of severe drought.

The worst affected areas are along the eastern and southern coasts, including New South Wales and Victoria.

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Emergency warnings remain in place in Victoria, where Brian lives, and four people remain missing in the state.

An evacuation from the Victoria beach town of Mallacoota is ongoing, since it was isolated by the fires on New Year's Eve.

Brian said he has seen entire towns turned to ash during his travels.

He said there is now a great fear among residents that two massive fires will join together.

"I drive a heavy goods vehicle over here," he says.

"I work for a company based over in Tasmania and I help out with shipping during fire season every year.

"We supply support for the firefighters and deliver the camps that they use, which are eight by 20 foot containers which include a kitchen, fridge area, toilet, shower and laundry blocks and one that has 250 sleeping bags contained within.

"So we get the call and load up and head to where we are needed.

"We drop out the containers, then head back and repeat.

"This year has been horrific as the fires are breaking out all over the state.

"There have been so many deaths and so much property destroyed.

"It is just awful.

The fires continue to rage in Australia
The fires continue to rage in Australia

"And it looks like today we have lost a whole firefighters' campsite to the fire. The kitchen alone was worth $800,000 but it would have been far too dangerous to go back to pick up."

Brian said that what he has seen travelling through the country has terrified him.

"I saw a wall of smoke and flames that would go from Belfast to Ballynahinch, if not Newcastle, and the sky turning a terrifying colour of red.

"At one point the road from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota - which is the last town in Victoria before you cross into New South Wales - was closed.

"There's a large town in that area called Lakes Entrance that during the year has a population of maybe 2,500 during the year but grows to 20,000 at Christmas.

"It's a stunningly beautiful town on a beach.

"People are so scared as there is only one road in or out and the fire cut off the Princes Highway.

"In another coastal town, Mallacoota, people were told to get into the water to escape the fire.

"I can never remember this happening before.

"Can you imagine being there in a tent or caravan with your kids aged from newborn up and you can't get out? Especially with warnings that a fire is heading towards the town.

"It is just petrifying.

"People in towns were told to get out, but because they have paid for their holidays, many are staying thinking they can fight nature.

"You can't beat Mother Nature when she is in full swing. And with the road cut off, no one can get supplies in."

Brian said that what he does can be dangerous, but nothing in comparison to what the firefighters are doing.

"What we do is nothing compared to the firefighters," he said.

"We are safe, but it does almost stop your heart when you come around a corner and see in the distance a wall of smoke.

"I have never seen anything like it.

"The fires produce their own weather system.

"When the embers rain down it's like a heavy rain shower.

"Then after the devastation, the place looks like the surface of the moon with these black trees everywhere.

"This is going to last for months.

"If two fires link up it will burn from the mountains to the coast and that's about 400km in a straight line, and it's all forest in between.

"So far they think over 500m animals have been lost. I would say that's a conservative number.

"The loss of life hits everyone so hard. A lot of the guys are volunteers and just helping out the folks in their area. So everyone knows them.

"Last week one of the volunteers died in the fires. His wife is expecting their first child in May. It's just utterly heartbreaking."

Brian said that people are fearful for their families and for the future.

"The army reserves have been called in to help," he said. "Never before has this happened.

"We have tragically lost people. We have lost towns, beautiful old buildings that have stood for years and years, all gone.

"How can you replace that?

"Now we have a smoke haze in Melbourne that is causing trouble for people with breathing problems.

"The area on fire in Victoria is around half the size of Belgium, but that will grow in the next few hours as the wind is changing and picking up.

"So that will affect the fires and if they join up, God help us all."

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