'It was a line of fire coming at us': South West firefighters return home

For the last seven days, three Busselton firefighters have been 4,000 kilometres from home, face-to-face with a wall of flames in the country's capital.

City of Busselton deputy chief Todd Johnson, Yallingup Coastal Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade captain Mark Tichener and Dunsborough Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade first lieutenant David Jenkins arrived in Canberra just hours before a state of emergency was declared.

The trio took a bus to Cooma in the Snowy Mountains as part of a 25-man strike team, tasked with maintaining an eight-kilometre fire line.

Mr Johnson said he and his team spent four long days in dry, barren paddocks in the unrecognisable mountain range area before finding themselves on the front line of the Canberra fire, which has burnt more than 80,000 hectares at Orroral and Snowy Valleys.

"It was just a line of fire coming at us," he said.

"You were really struggling for air.

"There were times when we would get out of our truck and have to put our mask on as quickly as possible because the smoke was so thick that you felt you couldn't breathe.

"There were times when we were incredibly nervous and checking our exit strategies because the fire was coming so quickly and we didn't know how we'd get out."

For Mr Johnson, that is when the adrenaline kicked in.

For the next three days, Mr Johnson and the rest of the strike team worked around the clock, shielding houses and residents from the approaching fire.

Mr Johnson is one of more than 1,500 emergency services volunteers to have been deployed to New South Wales and Queensland since September in a bid to tackle Australia's unprecedented bushfires.

The 2019/2020 bushfire season has seen more than 18 million hectares burnt across the country, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and claimed the lives of 34 people and about one billion animals.

Having watched the devastation unfold on television and online, Mr Johnson, a farmer and business owner who was only recently appointed to deputy chief of the city brigade, said he felt compelled to help.

"As I saw the amount of pressure that those guys [in the eastern states] were under, I said to my wife 'I'm going to have to go and help these guys'," he said.

"It's was very scary, you know? It's mountain country that we don't know and it's a fast moving fire.

"It's a dangerous place to be and we were constantly asking ourselves 'If this goes bad, where are we going?'."

Photo: Supplied.

Photo: Supplied.

Despite the upheaval he witnessed, Mr Johnson said there was a great deal of camaraderie among the emergency services, and that firefighters couldn't walk down the street without receiving a high five.

"The morale is really good, and the local firefighters are just so happy to see us there," he said.

"II didn't see a single person that wasn't thrilled that we were there and wasn't grateful for the help.

"Every person waves as you go past. You can't walk down the street without people giving you a high five, and that's the same for every firefighter.

"The locals are very, very appreciative of those coming from all over the world.

"One lady running the command post hadn't seen her children since New Year's Day when the fire started.

"The pressure, it brings everyone together.

"There was silence, there were serious bits, but there were laughs, too."

And it wasn't just firefighters and residents coming together to support one another.

"When the fire comes through, the kangaroos run into the holes with the wombats, and the wombats let them," he said.

"I wouldn't have believed it, but I saw three kangaroos emerging from the same hole.

"I saw it happening and couldn't believe my eyes.

"One of the guys turned around and said 'yeah, that's what they do'."