Yowrie fire storm: Family recounts horror as house burns around them

The Paulings' Yowrie property has been completely destroyed by fire with Troy Pauling (inset) now in North Shore Hospital ICU with third-degree burns after getting trapped while attempting to defend it. Photos: Supplied
The Paulings' Yowrie property has been completely destroyed by fire with Troy Pauling (inset) now in North Shore Hospital ICU with third-degree burns after getting trapped while attempting to defend it. Photos: Supplied

Jessica Gravener, her mum and five children huddled under wet blankets on their lounge room floor as the house around them burned.

If not for the arrival of volunteer firefighter Nathan and his partner to haul them over burning verandahs and past melting windows, they believed they were within minutes of death.

Jessica's partner Troy Pauling was not as fortunate and is currently in North Shore Hospital's ICU with third degree burns to his legs, and burns on his arms, face and eyes.

Their story is just one among many to emerge from the fire storm that struck on New Year's.

The bushfire emergency descended on Yowrie, in the upper ranges of the NSW South Coast, in the early hours of Tuesday.

Troy stayed behind with his dad Alan and a good mate, Matthew Rumble, to defend their property, but were caught when the roof collapsed.

Alan carried Troy for much of the 7km trek to help before police eventually picked them up. Alan also suffered burns to the side of his face and was treated at the South East Regional Hospital.

Jessica, in-laws Alan and Chris, three of the Paulings' grandchildren who were visiting from Wollongong and two of Jessica's kids eventually found shelter at the Bega Motel.

Jessica's eldest daughter is in Narooma with friends and has not been able to make contact since Tuesday.

On Thursday they were awaiting family from Wollongong with a minibus to take them out of the Bega Valley.

"It's like a war zone, we're like refugees," Chris said. "But what's important is getting all the family back together."

Jessica and Chris recounted the horrific ordeal of New Year's Eve.

Jessica and her two children thought as fire approached Yowrie that heading to her in-laws' home in Quaama - on Whitby Wilson Rd - would be the safe thing at the time.

They hunkered down anxiously. The they saw the mountain "exploding".

"We couldn't leave in the end. We were calling Triple-0 but the police said we couldn't leave as Cobargo was already on fire," Jessica said.

"By the time we turned around the verandah was on fire and the windows were bowing," Chris added.

"We put the kids under a blanket in the hallway - it was getting so hard to breathe. We hid under those blankets for three hours.

"We moved into the middle of the loungeroom and got the kids under wet blankets and bucketed water on them and over the floor around us and we hid."

Jessica said they were doing their best to try to calm the children - aged from 7 to 4.

"We all couldn't breathe and I was just saying 'count 1, 2, 3' over and over again to keep their minds on that. Then we'd do a check to make sure everyone was still breathing."

Chris said as the heat intensified they hid in the pantry and got the kids to breath into paper bags.

"We said 'if you keep breathing into these bags we promise the firies will come'.

"Then we heard screams of them arriving."

Jessica and Chris only knew their saviour as "Nathan" but the Bega District News believes that it was Nathan Barnden who was risking his life to rescue the family just as members of his own family were lost outside Cobargo.

"Nathan and his partner risked their lives for us. They were in as much danger as we were," Jessia said.

"He drove us at 100 miles an hour through a fireball, telling the kids not to touch the windows.

"He got us to the Quaama fire shed where we bunkered down for a while and then he took us all through to the Bega evacuation centre.

"He stayed with us the whole time and didn't leave our side until we were at the evac centre [in Bega].

"He stayed calm and wouldn't even let anyone else help us out of the truck until he had hold of us."

"He was a Godsend," Chris added.

Their gratitude for the RFS volunteers goes even further.

When shopping for essentials in Coles, one of the firies who had been in the truck driving several of the children to Bega happened to spot them. He leaned over and tapped his own card to pay for Jessica's groceries.

They didn't even know his name but their eyes were moist in retelling the tale.