February 03, 2020 06:01:13
Their survival videos were watched over 53 million times.
What happened next?
Life-or-death moments caught on video brought the terror of the Australian bushfires into people’s homes around the globe.
Unlike previous bushfires, the crisis was captured by thousands of people posting footage in real time from inside the inferno.
Some extraordinary moments have been viewed tens of millions of times, but who filmed them and how did their stories end?
Videos contain explicit language.
Behind the burnt hose
India MacDonell, 19, and her father Shaun lived “the sweet life” on a small farm in East Gippsland, Victoria.
Shaun had fought to save the house before and this time his tenacious daughter was determined to help him defend the property she had grown up on.
On December 30, India watched from their roof as the fire approached and thought it looked “almost spectacular”.
But the firestorm was far worse than they had expected.
And it was the first time India had used a fire hose.
“I just couldn’t imagine losing our house so I was prepared to fight as long and as well as I could,” she said.
“My main fear was the amount of smoke I was breathing in if I was going to pass out.
“When the tree caught on fire, I really thought the tanks were gonna melt, and then the house was going to catch on fire there as well.
“The fire had burnt through the hose in two places.
“I don’t know how that would’ve gone if that hose was actually completely screwed.”
Despite the odds, India and Shaun managed to save their home from destruction.
Shaun is immensely proud of how “his little girl” faced the flames and did not give up.
Shaun feels uneasy about future fires.
“I’ll probably need more than just the two of us next time. The way it seems to be going and the frequency of fires and the intensity. It was quite like hell really,” Shaun said.
“And if I have to go through it again I will,” he said.
Others around the country like Peter Davis also prepared for the fight.
But he lost the battle.
Four minutes of hell
Volunteer firefighter Peter Davis has lived on Kangaroo Island, off South Australia, for more than 70 years.
With the help of his two sons, Brenton and Ben, he was ready to defend his childhood home from the impending fire on January 3.
They were moving sheep when all of a sudden the fire was upon them “within seconds”.
“We had time to say, ‘get in the house’, we got in the house, and it just exploded all around us,” Peter said.
“I’d grown up with fire, I wasn’t afraid,” Peter said.
“We knew that we were together, we had to look out for each other.
“It’s that camaraderie, that family bond.”
“Australians always have dry humour. And even in times like that, there was a bit of humour.
“One of the things you have to do, is remain very, very calm, and you have to stay focused.
“People say, ‘Oh, you were lucky.’ No, we were very prepared.
“You make your own luck.”
The ferocious fire front passed within minutes and daylight returned.
When Peter and his sons came out of the house, they saw widespread destruction of the farm and equipment.
Initially they thought the house was saved.
But the relief was short-lived when they realised the roof had caught on fire.
“We knew that we had a few minutes,” Peter said.
“We gathered clothes into cases and got a whole lot of documents, got a few toys for the kids, got photos off the walls and stuffed them in the car.”
The home was built by Peter’s parents in 1956.
Peter had to cut a fence down and quickly drive out, knowing the house, with a lifetime of memories, would burn to the ground.
Soon after the fire, Peter received help from some “young blokes” who turned up and said, “we’re here to help you. What do you want done?”
“That’s the Australian spirit that makes me really proud,” Peter said.
The wrong time to leave
Toni Kearney and her partner Trevor also thought it was safe to stay.
They were waiting to defend their property at Nymboida near Grafton in northern NSW on November 8, when the wind unexpectedly changed.
Eighty-kilometre-per-hour gusts sent flames roaring over the top of a river towards them.
The firefighters were pulled out of the area and the couple had just minutes to escape.
It was just after 4:00pm and pitch black.
“It’s the wrong time to leave. It was already too late to leave and here we were, leaving,” Toni said.
“I was just thinking that we may not even make it.”
Despite widespread destruction in the area, Toni’s home was spared.
After years as a Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer, it was the first time Toni had seen a fire that “obliterated everything” in its path.
“There’s really nothing to burn in our town anymore. But in years to come, definitely I think it’s just going to get worse.”
Like many during the bushfires, Toni and Trevor had to flee for their lives on smoke-filled roads.
Meanwhile, firefighters headed directly into the inferno to help those unable to escape.
Sydney RFS firefighter Simon Adams was having a normal day at work on November 8.
He had just ordered a chicken schnitzel for lunch, when he was told to be ready to leave in two minutes.
He headed several hours away to Rainbow Flat on the Central Coast of NSW where the Hillville bushfire was raging.
“The speed and the ferocity of the fire was three or four times what we’d seen before,” Simon said.
Simon was told a resident nearby needed immediate help.
“He was in real trouble he was surrounded by fire and he didn’t know what to do,” Simon said.
A daring rescue mission began, which has been seen over 7 million times online.
“When I was driving I could not see more than about 2 metres.”
“The adrenaline was really pumping.”
“You’ve got to try and stay calm as much as you can. We know someone needs our help.”
“It was just a wall of embers like the sparks coming off the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve.”
Simon said the heat coming through the fire truck windows was nothing compared to the searing temperature when they arrived at the resident’s house.
But the resident refused to leave.
“The person that was actually inside the house, he was inside with his dog and a couple of cats, all in one room,” Simon said.
“He did not want to leave He was pretty adamant.”
Simon and his crew stayed at the property until after the fire front passed to make sure it was safe enough for the man to get out.
The house and resident both survived.
After returning and having a rest, Simon realised just how dangerous the mission was.
“You take up risk versus reward it just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
“Looking back, I would probably think twice if I had time to really think about it.”
Simon knows it isn’t over yet.
“When fire can travel that quickly and that ferociously it really makes you worry about what’s going to happen with the rest of the state over the whole fire season,” he said.
Simon’s fire truck wasn’t the only one to have a close call during a rescue.
On December 31, four metropolitan fire crews were on their way to help an RFS crew that was in urgent trouble at South Nowra, when they quickly became surrounded by flames.
The video of the firefighters caught in a terrifying firestormhas been watched more than 25 million times.
Firefighter Jasper Croft was in the truck as the video was filmed.
He and his crew were urgently retreating after realising they could not get past the enormous blaze.
As they were heading out through the fires, they heard a frantic radio message from the another fire truck further back in the convoy.
“The truck is dead, the truck is dead.”
The brakes on the other truck had melted and the crew were stranded.
Jasper had to make an agonising decision under pressure to drive past or stay and help.
At this point in December, three NSW rural firefighters had already died in fire truck incidents.
Feeling conflicted, Jasper followed his training to prioritise his crew’s own safety.
“We thought there was eight dead fireys for sure,” Jasper said.
The exterior of the stranded truck then caught on fire and smoke was rapidly leaking into the cabin.
The team decided they could no longer wait for help to come.
They put on their breathing equipment and walked about a kilometre out of the burning fireground.
Jasper was elated when he was told the other crew had made it out.
“It was just such a relief that you almost felt like crying,” he said.
The speed and unpredictability of fires caught out defenders, experienced volunteers and firefighters.
But this crisis extended much further.
Thousands of ill-equipped holidaymakers trying to enjoy a festive break were also stranded with little warning.
Trapped on New Year’s Eve
Teenager Madeleine Kelly has been going on holiday to Rosedale Beach on the NSW South Coast her whole life.
They were planning to return to Canberra on New Year’s Eve but a knock on the door at 7:00am that day changed everything.
A neighbour told them they were evacuating.
“Definitely did not expect the fires to come through. I think we were naive in that way,” she said.
As ash began to fall and the sky turned blood-orange, they filled an esky up with water and fled to the shoreline.
As dozens of families joined them, Madeleine began filming.
It was a scene more than 13 million people would later watch.
Madeleine described the experience as a turning point.
“This bushfire season has taught me that this might become our new reality,” she said.
She isn’t the only one concerned about the future.
East Gippsland teenager India also wonders what life will be like in years to come.
“Having to fight, and replant, and watch the land around us grow back, and then it all to be destroyed again by the fires?”she said.
Watch Four Corners tonight at 8:30pm on ABC TV.
Reporters: Lauren Day andSean Nicholls,
Digital producer: Laura Gartry
Digital designer and video production: Georgina Piper
Video production: Harriet Tatham
Story consultant: Tim Leslie
Developer: Joshua Bryd
Additional research: Kevin Nguyen
TV Story producer: Sashka Koloff
Photography: Aaron Hollett and Wayne Harley
India MacDonell via Storyful
Brenton Davis Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action via ViralHog
Contact Laura Gartry
stories from New South Wales