A veteran firefighter who was tackling a wildfire in California while his wife battled to save their home from a bushfire in August is home again — and still fighting fires close to home.
Phillip Walker is a veteran firefighter with 38 years’ experience fighting fires in every state and territory in Australia.
He began his career as an aviation firefighter based in Sydney, Norfolk Island, Adelaide and Alice Springs before moving into professional firefighting roles with Bushfires NT and the Rural Fire Service.
He led crews battling the 1994 Royal National Park bushfire, the 2013 Blue Mountains bushfire and the Tasmanian bushfires in 2016.
In August, he was on an overseas deployment when bushfires in the Bega Valley came close to home.
His wife Sharon Walker, a volunteer firefighter, and their daughter Elisabeth, also a trained firefighter, were left to defend the property.
“I called Phil and I remember saying, ‘I don’t know what to do’. I was a bit hysterical by that stage,” Ms Walker said.
A line of fire approaches the front fence line of Phillip and Sharon Walker’s property in Numbugga. (Supplied: Elisabeth Walker)
“Being so far away, you can’t jump on a plane or jump in the car and be home in a couple of hours,” Mr Walker said.
“I was just that voice on the end of the phone, that reassurance to let Sharon know that she knew what to do.
“I probably told her I loved her a million times. She knew what she was doing, it was all going to be okay.”
Ms Walker and Elisabeth patrolled their property and neighbouring properties for hours, putting out spot fires with a firefighting pump on their quad bike.
By the end of the day, they had saved their home from the fire that destroyed three houses in their street and damaged countless more properties.
A spot fire quickly spread on a paddock neighbouring the Walkers’ property. (Supplied: Elisabeth Walker)
‘We live and breathe firefighting’
After six weeks of working 14-hour days battling the Californian wildfires, Mr Walker returned home to a bushfire still burning out of control in his own neighbourhood.
The Yankees Gap Road fire had burnt close to 19,000 hectares of bushland and was still uncontained, with dry conditions posing a significant threat for residents of the nearby villages of Bemboka, Numbugga and Brogo.
On September 15, a month to the day after Ms Walker defended their property, the fire was again at emergency level.
Mr Walker, a volunteer with his local Rural Fire Service brigade in addition to his professional role with RFS State Mitigation, was this time on duty alongside his wife.
They helped to save a house in their neighbourhood, as well as crucial farm infrastructure and supplies.
The Yankees Gap Road fire burnt more than 19,000 hectares of bushland. (Supplied: Rachel Helmreich)
Fire crews from across the south-east region and beyond worked tirelessly to contain the Yankees Gap Road fire, which was finally brought under control on September 27.
Ms Walker continued to volunteer whenever she could, in addition to struggling with drought on her property and the dairy farm where she works.
“I’ve had a couple of little meltdowns, and a few tears, it’s all part of it,” she said.
“If I didn’t have a cry, if I didn’t say I was scared, if I didn’t say I was exhausted, there’d be something really wrong.
“I think [firefighting] is something everyone should know. We live in a rural area, it’s just something that people should learn how to do.”
Sharon Walker saved the family home from a bushfire in August. (ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton)