Heat stirs memory of tragic bushfires

The deaths of 11 Sutherland Shire volunteer firefighters since 1977 will be forever remembered by residents living in a region regularly  devastated by  bushfires. The shire was lucky enough get through temperatures of up to 43 degrees last week without the loss of property or life. But in the past such days have ended in tragedy. On January 9, 30 years ago, a fire burning on Anana Hill at Grays Point took the lives of  three volunteer firefighters. Emma Partridge looks back on some of the shire’s darkest hours and the unwavering commitment of Rural Fire Service volunteers.

IT WAS a hot and windy Sunday 30 years ago when crews from Heathcote Volunteer Bushfire Brigade got a call to attend a fire burning in the Royal National Park.

Heathcote 81 crew left their Bottle Forest Road station and headed out to battle the blaze alongside other brigades, not knowing that they were about to lose three fellow firefighters.

The fire had crossed Temptation Creek was ripping through thick bush unburnt for 15 years.

It was January 9, 1983: four bushfire brigades were dispatched to a fire trail on Anana Hill to fight fires heading towards houses and nearby Grays Point Public School.

The crew included captain Keith Campbell, his daughter Sharon, Thomas Bielecke, Gregory Moon, Jim Fowler, Paul Fenn, Craig Goodall, Craig Blanche, Robert Sawyer, Phillip Bourke and Rod Crane.

The mercury had risen to 38 degrees at Sydney Airport and late in the afternoon the crew were told to withdraw as winds picked up.

The crew were retreating when they noticed a woman they thought was stranded near Angle Road.

Keith Campbell sent three of his team to help the woman, not knowing she was a spectator and in no danger.

One volunteer escorted the woman to safety and two members returned, but as the crew tried to get out, fire blocked their path.

They frantically tried to backburn around the truck to give themselves shelter but the blaze was too fierce.

They huddled next to the tanker as the fire roared through.

Mr Campbell died metres from the truck trying shield his crew with a hose.

There was so much ash and smoke that survivors had no idea he had been killed, along with Gregory Moon, 20.

Thomas Biliecke, 35, of Caringbah, who suffered burns to 70 per cent of his body, died the next day.

Six were critically injured and suffered horrific burns.

Despite the awful tragedy, volunteer firefighters Jim Fowler, Sharon Campbell and Rod Crane remain active members of the Rural Fire Service.


An inquest into the Grays Point fires helped bring instrumental change to the Rural Fire Service, Sutherland Shire RFS Inspector Martyn Kiellor said.

He said the tragedy, which resulted in the death of three fellow volunteer firefighters, had helped start the transition from petrol operated to safer diesel tankers.

He said there was more organisation of maintenance checks and it had also changed the way volunteers were trained.

"Previously different regions all had individual training, and this [the Grays Point fires] helped to bring about the uniformity of training," Mr Kiellor said.

He remembers the scorchingly hot afternoon, and was working with Heathcote Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade trying to contain the fire on the eastern side.

Mr Kiellor said it was hard to describe the feeling among his colleagues when they heard about the deaths of three people.

"We were in shock. I think you could only describe it as a numb feeling," he said.

Former Leader chief-of-staff Graham Davis spent many hours in the NSW Coroner's Court at Glebe covering Australia's longest coronial inquiry, which lasted for more than 200 days.

"The inquest was far-reaching and extremely probing, and saw some of the state's top legal practitioners involved," Mr Davis said.

He said there were 113 recommendations for the bushfire service handed down by Bert Wilson, SM.

"These recommendations were acted upon and I believe they have resulted in the top-flight rural fire service we have in NSW today," Mr Davis said.

"We now have improved and safer water tankers, better small gear, enhanced training and vastly improved communications."

Click above (or the link below) to hear a song called 'Blue Waterfall' written in 1980 by Paul Mathew Kelly in memory of his school friend 'Blue' ie David Marshall (aged 19), and the other four firefighters who died fighting the 1980 Waterfall bushfires.



Lesley Delardes: Died 16/12/1977 at Menai - Menai brigade

Steve Crunkhorn: Died 3/11/1980 at Waterfall - Headquarters

Vernon Stedman: Died 3/11/1980 at Waterfall - Headquarters

William Cummings: Died 3/11/1980 at Waterfall - Headquarters

David Marshall: Died  3/11/1980 at Waterfall - Headquarters

Gregory Rolfe: Died  3/11/1980 at Waterfall - Headquarters

Keith Campbell:  Died 9/1/1983 at Grays Point - Heathcote brigade

Thomas Biliecke: Died  9/1/1983 at Grays Point - Heathcote brigade

Gregory Moon:  Died 9/1/1983 at Grays Point - Heathcote brigade

Alan Rendell: Died  16/10/1988 at Royal National Park - Illawong brigade

Peter Estcourt: Died 7/12/1997 at Menai - Grays Point brigade


Last week also marked the 19th anniversary of the 1994 bushfires which destroyed 104 homes in Como, Jannali and the Menai area.

Jannali woman Pauline Mary O’Neil, 42, died in the blaze as she ran from her house towards her backyard swimming pool. 

Sutherland Shire RFS Inspector Martyn Kiellor said he remembered trying to put out a fire in a church on the corner of Bindea Street and Lincoln Crescent  when he got word that someone had been burnt in a pool nearby. 

He stayed in the pool with Ms O’Neil’s two daughters and partner and waited with them until an ambulance arrived. 

Mr Kiellor said the 1994 fires had helped to trigger changes that brought about the Rural Fire Service as it operates today.  

Were you affected by the fires? Leave a message for someone or share your experiences by clicking on the comment link below the story. 

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