Fallen firefighter Samuel McPaul was one of six Riverina volunteers recognised for his bravery during a unique tornado-like fire at the NSW Rural Fire Service Internal Bravery and Service Award ceremony yesterday.
Mr McPaul, who died fighting the Green Valley bushfire near Jingellic on December 30, 2019, was honoured along with his Culcairn North West Brigade members, Captain Andrew Godde and Rodney O'Keeffe.
Captain Godde said he wanted to attend the ceremony in Sydney to recognise and remember his mate "who paid the ultimate sacrifice".
"I wanted to honour Sam McPaul who was killed on my truck," Captain Godde said.
"I thought I owed it to Sam."
Captain Godde said the ceremony was the closing of a chapter that would help the crew members move forward, after the traumatising fire event.
"(The ceremony) brought it all back again," he said,
"It's good to remember those who were killed and the boys who were badly burnt on those trucks.
"The scars are still there physically and mentally, but we're all trying to get on with our lives as best we can.
"(The ceremony) was good for us.
"We all discussed it today and it's almost like we've closed that door behind us and we're all trying to move forward and it's a pretty important milestone in that regard."
Captain Stuart Anderson and firefighter Andrew Julian, of the Back Creek-Greater Hume Brigade, and Deputy Group Captain Ian Avage, of the Splitters Creek Brigade, also received bravery medals.
Mr Godde said it was good to be together with the group, but the reunion was tinged with sadness.
"We got together back in December on the actual anniversary and had a meal together," he said.
"Whenever we have a meal together it's almost bitter sweet.
"We all get on so well, but we were thrown together for all the wrong reasons."
On December 29, 2019, after a long hot summer, a dry lightning strike started a fire on a property along the Murray River Road, near Jingellic.
The weather conditions deteriorated and the fire spread.
The following day Mr McPaul, Captain Godde and Mr O'Keeffe were responding to a fire on property when catastrophic weather created a vortex of fire called 'a fire well'.
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The fire well was likely to have produced extreme wind speeds consistent with a tornado and stretched some eight kilometres in height.
Mr Godde said it was "out of this world".
"It was the first time one of those fire tornadoes has been experienced in Australia," he said. "Shane Fitzsimmons said to me at the time, 'Andrew, you're the first one that's seen this', and I said, 'well, I don't feel that special, Shane'.
"It picked our truck up and turned it over, so I guess that's pretty exclusive, but for all the wrong reasons."
Captain Godde climbed through the damaged windscreen of the eight tonne truck and gave first aid to Mr O'Keeffe who was momentarily trapped, but Mr McPaul passed away at the scene.
Mr O'Keeffe was airlifted to hospital and Captain Godde was transported to Holbrook for medical attention.
Meanwhile, Captain Anderson and Mr Julian were protecting a property when they were hit by the fire well, forcing them to take refuge in a nearby shed and pipe, respectively, before escaping to the river.
Deputy Group Captain Ian Avage was doing a reconnaissance of the fire area and checking on his crews when the fire well exploded.
His vehicle was blown from the roadway, the force of the explosion turning it on its side.
Mr Avage left the truck and ran through the catastrophic conditions to take shelter in a nearby property before his vehicle exploded into flames.
The Riverina recipients were among 16 people honoured by the Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers and Resilience NSW Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
Mr Godde said he initially didn't think he deserved the award, but it was "very humbling."
Jindera Brigade Group Captain Matthew Hicks, Lankeys Creek Brigade Deputy Group Captain Peter Taylor and Group Captain John Hawkins, and Central - Greater Hume Brigade Firefighter Malcolm Irons and Deputy Captain Wayne Watson received the Commissioner's Certificate of Commendation.
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