Not much to see, but dive tank a lifeline
When Samantha Kneeshaw realised there was nothing more she could do to save her house from the raging New Year’s Eve bushfire at Conjola, on the NSW south coast, she made her way to her backyard pool and strapped on scuba diving gear.
For 10 minutes the marine biologist oceanographer sat as still as she could, submerged in the shallow end of the water without goggles or a mask to see, and controlled her breathing as burnt leaves and ash fell around her.
“I couldn’t actually see it at that stage,’’ Ms Kneeshaw told The Australian. “The house was obscured by black smoke. All I could see was flames above the house and I reckon they must have been the trees on the other side of the (Princes) highway. I just thought that was the house going.’’
The 45-year-old was in despair at the thought of losing her home after trying so hard to save it.
And she was deeply concerned about the wildlife, without realising people at Conjola Park were also in danger.
Her teenage daughters, Darcy and Manny, husband David and beloved dogs were out of harm’s way in the nearby towns of Ulladulla and Milton and she had enough oxygen in her diving tank to last one hour underwater.
“There were a couple of explosions — they were two trucks on my neighbours’ property — I had to keep under because of all the embers and there was just stuff everywhere,” Ms Kneeshaw said.
Nearly every plant on the fourhectare property was burnt or lost their leaves from the heat and seven of the family’s eight chickens and a rooster were killed.
But as the smoke began to clear Ms Kneeshaw saw her house miraculously still standing, saved by her firefighting efforts, a firefighting pump and a homemade
roof sprinkler system. The only damage was two cracked windows and melted bathroom vents.
Ms Kneeshaw may be the only Australian to have used her scubadiving gear and pool to survive the bushfires but she stressed it was part of her fire plan and she was well-prepared.
Her husband had gone to work before 8am on the day the fire hit, not knowing what was coming, while Manny had been dropped into town to stay with a friend and Darcy was volunteering.
A phone call from neighbour Bruce Shea at 10.30am alerted her to the need to get ready for the approaching fire.
Ms Kneeshaw started spraying around the house and wetting the decks while, across the highway, 30m-tall eucalypts were in flames.
“At that stage I just went angry. I was furious at the government,” she said.
“We’ve been watching this place get dryer, tree ferns that have been there for years have died. We knew this was going to happen. I was just livid they haven’t done anything about climate change.”
With adrenaline pumping, she rang triple-0 when she could see the fire and urged the authorities to get there before it jumped the highway and reached Fishermans Paradise and Conjola Park — not realising it was already burning on the other side.
After the worst had passed, she circled the house again and again, putting out spot fires well into the afternoon, and jumping back in the pool to get air from the oxygen tank because of the smoke. Nearly 100 homes burnt around Conjola and three people died.