Robert Sawyer narrowly survived a bushfire while serving as a volunteer firefighter in 1983. (ABC Illawarra: Gavin Coote)
Robert Sawyer can barely see, read or type after narrowly surviving one of Sydney’s deadliest bushfires, but he has not let that stop him from finishing a PhD on the topic.
Graduating this week with a PhD into the impact of bushfires on soil, Dr Sawyer bears permanent signs of a fire event that killed three of his firefighting crew members and left him critically injured 35 years ago.
“I have no central vision in either eye so I’m legally blind, I can’t read print, I find recognising faces next to impossible,” he said.
“I have extremely deformed hands. A combination between pig’s trotters and lobster claws is often the most apt description, and I have no motor function below the knee.”
Helmet on fire and hands peeling
Dr Sawyer was a university student in Armidale when he returned to his home in southern Sydney for the summer break in 1983.
During the break he went to fight the Grays Point bushfire in the Royal National Park as a volunteer.
His crew was surrounded by flames, and three members, including captain Keith Campbell, died.
“It came roaring over the ridge top, and at that point the tanker and water pump completely failed, and things got significantly difficult pretty quickly,” Dr Sawyer said.
At one point his helmet was on fire and he “witnessed my hand and hands peeling”, but eventually he escaped the blaze and caught the attention of fellow crew members.
“[They] came running and scooped me up and threw me into someone’s front yard and started hosing me down. Apparently my overalls were still burning,” Dr Sawyer said.
He spent about five months in intensive care, another five months in the Concord Hospital burns unit, and about a year in rehabilitation at Thirroul.
After doing further studies and going into consultancy work, the University of Wollongong PhD graduate has most recently been looking at the impact of bushfires on soil carbon, and its relationship with climate change.
His interest in bushfires pre-dates the tragic 1983 blaze, having grown up in the leafy suburb of Heathcote with aspirations of being a National Parks ranger, but he “swore off fire research for a long time” after the blaze.
Dr Sawyer, who lost almost all of his fingers and vision from the bushfire, has been studying the impacts of fire on soil. (ABC Illawarra: Gavin Coote)
Dr Sawyer uses a variety of technologies to read and type, including voice recognition software, but said it had its limitations.
“All these things sort of combine to make life more than interesting, but you can sit in the corner and do nothing or you can get out there and do what you can,” he said.
Grays Point blaze led to bushfire safety improvements
The coronial inquest into the Grays Point blaze was one of the longest in history, running for 255 days — more than twice as long as the Sydney Lindt cafe siege inquest in 2015-16.
Volunteer firefighters take a dinner break on a front lawn during the 1983 Grays Point bushfire. (Supplied: Peter Solness)
It produced 113 recommendations that led to improvements in equipment and training standards for the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Professor Ross Bradstock, who heads up the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management where Dr Sawyer is based, said Dr Sawyer’s story was a “remarkable” one of passion and perseverance.
He said the 1983 bushfire, along with subsequent serious blazes in Australia, had provided valuable lessons for authorities.
“They’ve essentially led to incremental changes in capacity, planning and technology,” Professor Bradstock said.
“The big one in recent years has been the royal commission into the 2009 [Victoria] bushfires, and that’s created some fairly major changes in policy and operations.”