11 Sep Fiery Matthew Cuts Off Our Phone Call
Senior Sunshine Coast firefighter Matthew Foster is adamant the story of this week’s bushfires is not about the men and women, like him, who leave their families, night and day, to fight them.
With not a single life lost, he says this is a story about the resilience and teamwork in those communities facing threats they had never imagined.
Foster was on a day off on Monday, and had set about preparing dinner for his 20-month-old daughter Sophia and 10-year-old son Samual when he received a phone call.
New fires were popping up all over Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, and he was needed to help man the Caloundra Control Centre.
He dropped what he was doing and raced to work. And for the next 22 hours, one threat fused into the next.
Our interview stops there. “Sorry, we’ve got another one. I’ll have to call you back.’’ And he is gone to provide assistance to someone, somewhere else.
Two hours later, he’s back. “It was a car accident.’’
Back to the fires. After 90 minutes manning the control centre on Monday, Foster was tasked with fighting the Peregian flames, which had appeared almost out of nowhere.
This was just one of the tricky assignments handed out over the past few days, as firefighters came up against 92 separate fires across the state.
Foster and 30 others firefighters, with 10 trucks, were given the task of a nursing home, which housed 90 residents.
Should they evacuate? Or not? A mammoth question, given the number and condition of many residents, and the pace of the advancing flames.
A decision was made to protect the building and those inside, and the residents were moved to the foyer, in case the decision to stay needed to be changed.
“We got the fire trucks between the building and the home,’’ Matthew Foster says. The trucks served as the armour, protecting home’s elderly and frail, while crews made sure the fireworks of embers never reached the building.
It was as tiring as the flames were ruthless.
“Everyone worked as one team, which is the amazing thing about it,’’ he says. “We were all there for the community. That’s our goal in everything we do.’’
“Fire was surrounding the whole of Peregian at that point,’’ he says.
One hour passed. And then another. And a third.
Foster says it was only natural to think of his wife Jules – a paramedic who had also been called in – and their two small children, who had been handed over to Grandma.
But that’s when the training kicked in. Escape plans were hatched and known by everyone. And staff at the home focused on doing a stellar job of keeping everyone calm.
Eventually, the battle was won, and only two crews remained, just in case, as the others moved to the next fiery challenge.
Foster went back to the control centre, before being sent out again to ensure a big control line was put in place. This would serve as the wall against the main fire; a monstrous, careless fireball that filled the sky with daylight, and Peregian residents with fear.
It was fast. Unpredictable. Matthew Foster says he had not seen anything like this particular one before, and he and his colleagues worked through the night, until the sun rose high on Tuesday.
It was then onto another fire; this time the flames had stolen the back deck of a house. And then another spot fire. And then another. And then another. He forgets how many. Maybe four. Maybe five.
At 3pm, 22 hours after being called in, he finally left work, for home.
“You always think about your own family,’’ he says. “Before I leave I always say, ‘I love you. Daddy knows what he is doing.’ It makes them feel better.’’
Foster was back at work yesterday morning, 12 hours after his 22-hour shift, with hundreds of others, including dozens of people from NSW and the ACT.
All up, at one point, 175 fire trucks were simultaneously at the scene of fires. Some of those fires were started by reckless fools who wilfully placed the lives of Matthew Foster and his co-workers in jeopardy.
Foster, like his co-workers, does not want to be drawn into that debate.
“I just take my hat off to all the volunteers and everyone who leaves their homes and fights fires for hours and hours,” he says.
So do we, Matthew. To you and every other firefighter protecting us this summer.
Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.