Tasmania bushfires meant missed family milestones for volunteer firefighter Tom Andrews
Tom Andrews has missed a lot of family milestones this summer.
He wasn’t home for his son’s first Christmas, his son’s first birthday, his wedding anniversary nor the birth of his nephew.
The 27-year-old spent Christmas fighting a bushfire on Bruny Island that forced dozens of campers to evacuate.
Then 2019 began with him helping defend his own Huon Valley community, as a fire that started on Riveaux Road became increasingly uncontrollable.
Mr Andrews has been a volunteer firefighter for 10 years and is based with the Huonville and Sandfly brigades.
He said he was lucky his wife Nikita supported his work and was understanding when it was time to go.
A Christmas callout
When his phone rang on Christmas Eve, Mr Andrews said he knew what it meant.
The Cloudy Bay fire on Bruny Island was getting bigger and bigger.
“It was dire straits and they needed our help, so you drop what you can and off you go,” he told Leon Compton on ABC Radio Hobart.
After he took the call from his fire chief he wandered back into the kitchen and broke the news.
“My wife said, ‘Are you going?’ and I said, ‘Yep’.”
He wasn’t home for his son Jack’s first Christmas.
“I know everyone says he won’t remember it, but it’s not the point,” he said.
Mr Andrews has been a volunteer firefighter for 10 years in the Huon Valley. (ABC Hobart: Georgie Burgess)
One week later Jack turned one, and shortly after that it was the Andrews’ wedding anniversary — Tom was outside of mobile phone coverage fighting a fire at Southwood.
As well as the family toll, Mr Andrews has been absent from his job as an arborist.
“Hats off to [the boss]; he’s trying to run a small business and he doesn’t know when his employee is going to be there,” he said.
“Every member I know in that Huonville brigade is directly involved in this fire, their family is directly involved in this fire, and they’ve left work at any cost to try and help out.”
When he wasn’t fighting fires, he tried to find respite at home in the Huon Valley — but he could still see fire and smoke in the distance from the family’s home on a hill.
Experienced firemen can tell when conditions are worsening and if they were likely to be called into action.
“My wife started shutting the curtains to stop me looking outside,” said Mr Andrews, whose mother and father-in-law have been staying with them after fire forced their evacuation from Geeveston.
Mr Andrews says the scariest moment was when he was called out to a fire at the Southwood timber mill. (Supplied: TFS/Warren Frey)
The scariest moment
Mr Andrews lives in Ranelagh, a small community next to Huonville. He’s lived in the area his whole life.
As an arborist, he knows most of the timber mill workers in the region.
“We got paged to the Southwood mill in the middle of the night just as the fire was starting to impact them,” he said.
“There were people on site that could be trapped.
“That was the scariest moment for me, knowing the boys that work at the mill.”
Mill workers had taken shifts watching the site for embers and spot fires.
The owner, James Neville-Smith, made a triple-0 call when the conditions worsened and a nearby mill was alight.
As Mr Andrews and his crew raced to the blaze, they passed the workers driving away and heading north to Huonville.
“I’ve never felt so relieved as we passed that car full of the boys.”
The crew fought flames 10 metres high, surrounded by saw dust, woodchips and timber.
One mill was saved but another suffered significant damage.
While the fires in the Huon Valley have subsided, they are not yet extinguished.
Mr Andrews will stay on call, hoping that next summer he’ll be home to mark milestones.