Not much to see, but dive tank a life­line

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - ROSIE LEWIS

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.

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