A young volunteer firefighter who died in a tragic accident while battling bushfires in southern New South Wales was recently married and expecting his first child.
Samuel McPaul, 28, was killed when the Rural Fire Service truck he was in rolled after being hit by ferocious winds outside of Albury in the state’s south about 5.50pm yesterday.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons choked while paying tribute to Mr McPaul at a media conference this morning, describing the loss as “devastating”.
“He was a young man, 28, well respected and admired throughout the local community and in his brigade,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
The accident that killed Mr McPaul and injured three of his colleagues was the result of an “extraordinary wind event, a fire tornado …”, said Mr Fitzsimmons.
The winds caused the 10-tonne truck to be lifted from the ground, trapping the three firefighters, according to the ABC.
The young couple had been married for almost 18 months, and Mr McPaul’s death has left his family and local community reeling.
“He leaves behind, tragically, a beautiful wife, Megan, who was pregnant with their first child that is due on May 4,” said the Commissioner.
The Commissioner has tirelessly addressed media over the course of the bushfires crisis, but in the moment today, he was visibly distressed and lost for words.
The accident that killed Mr McPaul and injured three of his colleagues was the result of an “extraordinary wind event, a fire tornado, or a collapse they believe might have been a collapse of pyro-convective column that had formed above the fire front,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
“That’s resulted in cyclonic-type winds that has moved across the fire grounds and has literally lifted up a 10 or 12-tonne fire truck and lifted up its roof, tragically killing Sam in the process.”
A second firefighter, a 39-year-old man, was flown to the Alfred Hospital in a serious condition suffering burns. He remains in hospital.
The driver, aged 52, was treated at the scene before being taken to Holbrook Hospital with minor injuries. He has since been released.
“The service’s thoughts are with all the firefighters’ families, friends and fellow brigade members,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said yesterday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison shared the news on Twitter overnight, calling it “awful” and saying he was “grateful” for the firefighters’ work.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian expressed her “sympathy and condolences” to Mr Paul’s family as she addressed media from the RFS headquarters.
“This brings home to us what NSW is going through. Every fire front is a threat to life, to people’s life as they know it, and it was devastating news last night that brought that home,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“These circumstances are never easy, but … the circumstances are very tragic and our heart goes out to everybody who knew him, worked with him and we can’t explain or appreciate what his family and loved ones are going through.”
The injured firefighters had been working on the Green Valley Talmalmo fire, about 110km east of Albury, when the truck rolled.
Police said the group had been fighting fires from the refuge area inside the truck, behind the main cabin.
The fire in the Jingellic area today, to the east of Albury, continues to burn out of control and is moving fast due to persistent strong winds.
Despite the tragedy, crews remain at the frontline in a bid to protect properties along the northern side of the Murray River.
The death toll from this fire season has now risen to nine, including two other volunteer firefighters and six members of the public.
Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, died on December 19 when a tree fell into the path of their tanker truck, causing it to roll, as they were travelling in a convoy near Buxton, southwest of Sydney.