Fire services in action at Faulconbridge. Geoff Jones/Fairfax Syndication

Fires fan community spirit

Blue Mountains schools at the heart of bushfire drama.

Jim Marr

For 10 consecutive days Winmalee High School industrial arts teacher Geoff Booth went toe-to-toe with fires that turned the Blue Mountains black.

On the frontline for up to 12 hours at a stretch, Geoff defended his own home and family in Springwood before confronting flames that threatened other lower mountains communities at Faulconbridge and Winmalee.

For Geoff, an experienced deputy captain in the Faulconbridge Rural Fire Brigade, and hundreds of volunteers just like him, the October fires packed levels of heat and intensity they had rarely encountered.

“I had been out the day before fighting the Lithgow fires. I went to bed and a gust, or something woke me up and there it was, burning in the street next to ours,” Geoff said.

“It was the speed with which it took off. Normally, a fire would take a day or two to reach the Nepean River; this one was there in three hours. The intensity and heat were greater than anything I had seen in a very long time.

“It was absolutely exhausting for all our people.”

Fire fighters, including many public school teachers, get up to six days leave every two years but in a declared emergency they are covered for as long as it takes.

Geoff admits that after living on adrenalin and very little sleep for the best part of a fortnight, it takes a day or two to readjust to classroom reality. “Let’s just say it changes your perspective about some of the issues we think are important,” he said.

Geoff, a former Fed Rep at Mt Druitt High School, has been fighting fires for nearly as long as he has been a Federation member.

Born in nearby Lapstone, the father of three daughters knows all about the danger of fire while the teacher in him is aware that important lessons need to be reinforced.

“If you ask people up here they will say they understand it,” he said. “But do they act on it? No, not always, people become complacent.”

Meanwhile, Geoff’s Winmalee colleagues, Nathan Carr and Greg Dalton, were drumming up $15,000 for affected students. They are members of popular local band, SaLT, that turned a planned gig at Blaxland’s Lapstone Hotel into a community fundraiser on less than 48 hours notice.

“We had had the gig planned for months,” Nathan said, “but when the fires broke out we decided to turn it into a fundraising show.

“We had a day and a half to organise everything but lots of teachers and other people helped out and it turned into a big school effort.”

On the Saturday night, the pub rocked. With band members donating their fees, teachers running collections, the hotel, local clubs and other businesses pitching in generously, they raised $15,000 to be split between schools whose students had suffered losses.

For drummer Nathan, saxophonist Greg and other members of the seven-piece band it was a moving experience.

“There is a lot of community spirit when it is needed, that’s for sure,” Nathan said. Some of his students lost their homes and, he understands, at least one teacher, from another school, also lost property.

Winmalee teachers looked after students until late into the night as the blaze circled the township and the school was closed for two days as the winds blew flames menacingly close.

At least two Winmalee teachers, and several students, were actively involved in Rural Fire Service efforts to defend nearby towns.