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'It's like a war zone': Family tells of incredible escape from Bega Valley fire

Alan and Chris Pauling are feeling exhausted, elated, overwhelmed, thankful, angry and frustrated, all in one.

It's been almost two weeks since the South Coast couple endured the most terrifying experience of their lives as bushfire tore through their beloved Bega Valley in the early hours of New Year's Eve, ravaging almost everything in its path.

Their 17-acre hobby farm at Quaama was wiped out in the blink of an eye, as was their son's property at Yowrie. The ordeal was made even more excruciating by the fact the close-knit family was split between the two properties when the firefront hit and were unaware of each other's fate until nearly 24 hours later.

Calm before the storm

Alan and Chris had spent Christmas week in the Illawarra but returned home on December 30, with three of their six grandchildren for the annual extended Pauling family holiday.

The Badja Forest fire, the closest to the Bega Valley, was still tens of kilometres away and the family had gone to painstaking lengths to ensure their property was as fire-fit as possible.

"We thought we were prepared, we thought our place was safe," Chris said somberly, sitting at the kitchen table in her daughter's rented Warilla townhouse on Friday.

"But this wasn't just a fire, it wasn't just a bushfire....it was a war zone. We feel like refugees in our own country."

Alan's story

Alan and Chris were almost home on Monday when a frantic Troy rang them to say he feared his property was in danger.

Alan set Chris with pumps and water-filled buckets when they got home before driving to Yowrie to help Troy. Meanwhile, Troy's wife and two of their three children (the eldest was with friends in Narooma) fled to their in-laws place at Quaama.

Alan estimated the fire was about 15km from his son's house when he arrived but was upon them just hours later in the wake of strong, erratic winds.

Alan said three spot fires turned into a raging inferno in an instant: "all I saw was this fireball come at me. It was like someone dropped a bomb."

Alan, Troy, and Troy's friend Matt Rumble, barricaded themselves in the house but it began to burn down around them.

Matt managed to escape to a clearing but Alan and Troy were forced to hide behind a brick barbecue at the rear of the house and use a fridge to shield themselves from the flames.

"I didn't realise Troy was badly burned until he started shaking," Alan said.

"I put a big rug over us and poured water on him. He said 'please don't let me die, Dad'. And I said I wouldn't. I cuddled him and cuddled him."

The fire front eventually passed, leaving a smoldering wreck where the house once stood.

Alan can't remember how many times he phoned triple-zero but said no one came to their aid for hours, despite his repeated pleas for assistance.

He and Matt carried Troy for much of the 7km trek towards town before police eventually picked them up.

Both Troy and Alan were admitted to Bega Hospital suffering burns. Alan was released later that day but Troy was flown to the burns unit at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.

Grieving: Alan and Chris Pauling reflect on their harrowing ordeal inside the South Coast firestorm on New Year's Eve, crediting "good luck" with their survival. Picture: Adam McLean

Grieving: Alan and Chris Pauling reflect on their harrowing ordeal inside the South Coast firestorm on New Year's Eve, crediting "good luck" with their survival. Picture: Adam McLean

Chris's story

Twenty-five kilometres away, Chris had no idea what was unfolding at her son's property. Anyway, she had her own inferno to worry about.

"We were told we had 48 hours to make a decision about leaving; four hours later it was all gone," she said, estimating the fire was about 40km away when they arrived home.

Chris and her daughter-in-law Jess had five children inside the home when the fire came at them out of nowhere, having crossed a seemingly impossible distance in such a short time.

"When it started to roll down the hill we called Batemans Bay police and asked them the best way to get out. They said everything around us was on fire and we had to stay put," she said.

"One minute the fire was a mile away and the next minute it was on our door."

As the house began to burn down around them, Chris heard a man yelling out to them.

A stranger, who she later learned was RFS volunteer firefighter Nathan Barnden, heard of the family's desperate plight across the RFS radio and had driven through the blaze to rescue them.

"One by one he took the kids out over the end of the verandah to his 4WD," she said.

"He had to get seven of us out and he didn't stop, he counted every one of us."

She later discovered Nathan had learned of the deaths of family members Robert and Patrick Salway in the fire at Cobargo while he was with the Paulings but had continued to see them to safety.

Despite their relief at escaping the flames, Chris, Jess and the kids remained worried sick about Alan and Troy, whom they had not heard from ion hours.

Aftermath

Alan and Chris were reunited on Tuesday evening, about 24 hours after they'd last seen each other.

Both were unaware of the harrowing ordeal the other had been through, but explanations would have to wait.

They were given emergency accommodation at a hotel in Bega but were forced to leave a few days later because there were prior bookings.

With nowhere else to go, the extended Pauling family is now living in a three bedroom townhouse at Warilla with Alan and Chris's daughter Tara and her three children.

They have one simple message for others anywhere in the fire zone.

"Get out, don't wait. If you get a warning to go, then go," Chris said.

Meanwhile, the family visits Troy in hospital every second - a trip which costs them $34 in parking, on top of fuel for their borrowed car.

While the Paulings are pragmatic about the loss of their material possessions, their one immediate wish was to replace Troy's lost mobile phone, so he can talk to them from his hospital bed. That wish was granted on Friday by Daniel George and Greg Devine, the owners of ArbiTrium Technology in Parramatta, who gave the Pauling family an iPhone and sim card so they could communicate directly with Troy in hospital.


This story 'It's like a war zone': Family tells of incredible escape from Bega Valley fire first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.