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NSW bushfire inquest: Firestorm that killed Robert and Patrick Salway ‘like a bomb going off’

A father and son who died in the Black Summer bushfires were hit with a firestorm so extreme it uprooted trees and threw car parts 500m.

A deadly firestorm that claimed the lives of a beloved father and son near Cobargo was “like a bomb going off” and the pair may not have stayed if they had “known what was coming their way”, an inquest has heard.

Robert Salway, 63, and his son Patrick, 29, died in a paddock at the family’s Wandella property when a firestorm generated by the ferocious Badja Forest fire struck on the morning of December 31, 2019.

The fifth generation dairy farmer and his youngest son were ploughing firebreaks and putting out spot fires less than 100m from the family farmhouse when the firestorm descended.

“The heat was so intense and everything went dark,” Janelle Salway, Robert’s wife of 42 years, said in a statement read aloud in court.

She was outside when heat ramped up and she saw the pine trees near the shed and the stairs of the farmhouse were on fire.

“I shouted out ‘Robert where are you?’ I heard Robert say ‘Patrick, Patrick’ in a faint voice,” she said.

Mrs Salway thought her husband and son would be in the farmhouse, but they were not. After the storm passed, she found their bodies in the paddock.

The father and son are among 25 people who died in the Black Summer 2019-20 bushfire season whose deaths are being investigated at an inquest before state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan.

Counsel assisting the coroner Adam Casselden told the court on Tuesday the storm was so extreme it uprooted large trees and threw parts of vehicle up to 500m from their original positions.

Aaron Salway, another of Robert and Janelle’s six children, had been up all night preparing for the fire at his own dairy farm in Cobargo and was worried about his parents.

He described the fire as “like a bomb going off” and after it went through, spoke to his mother on the phone who told him: “I’ve found them, they’ve gone,” Mr Casselden said.

Mr Casselden read aloud from Aaron Salway’s statement: “I don’t think Dad or Patrick would have risked their lives to stay if they knew what was coming their way.”

“I believe they thought they would be able to stay and protect the property. The fire was so swift and severe they could not know what was happening until the fire had hit them.”

Neighbour Peter Anderson, who lived about 700m from the Salways, said as he waited for the fire “I could hear it like a roaring bull coming out of the mountains”.

Mr Anderson stayed to defend his house armed with “good gear and lots of water” — a decision he said he would make again, even now with the benefit of hindsight.

“I think I would,” he said.

“I’ve got things in my house that I didn’t want to ever see disappear. Handed stuff down from grandfathers, and family coin collections that I didn’t want to lose. And a new house, a 10 or 12-year-old house.

“That was why I done what I done.”

The same fire also claimed the life of Colin Burns, 72, an off-duty firefighter from Belowra who was determined to save his house from the blaze.

He remained unwavering in this plan, even as one of the three cottages on his farm burned down and several of his Rural Fire Service colleagues urged him to get out.

“He never changed his mind at all,” Ewan Thompson told the inquest. “He was always going to stay and defend the rest of his property.”

Mr Thompson, who has been captain of the Belowra RFS brigade for an extraordinary 54 years, stayed at Mr Burns’s place until about 2.30am on December 31 as the out-of-control blaze approached.

The veteran firefighter said he was “very concerned” for Mr Burns’ property, but believed more people would be at risk elsewhere in the area.

“I had to say to him, ‘I have to leave’,” he told the inquest.

The inquest heard Mr Burns died on the morning of 31 December 2020, his body found in his burnt out ute on a narrow dirt road about 50km from Bodalla.

“It is likely he realised he could not defend (his house) or himself and he made a late decision to evacuate,” counsel assisting the coroner Tracey Stevens said.

Mr Thompson told the court despite his decades of firefighting experience he had never seen a fire burn so fiercely in the early hours of the morning as the Badja Forest blaze.

After battling the fire all night, he thought it was 8pm when he returned to the RFS shed but it was in fact midday.

“Everything was so dark we couldn’t tell the difference between day and night.”

Deborah Dance, Mr Burns’ neighbour, told the inquest she had spotted his burnt out ute on Belowra Road after fleeting her own property with her husband and son-in-law.

“I asked my husband, ‘Is he there, can you see him?’ and he just shook his head,” she said.

Asked to offer a theory on what might have happened in Mr Burns’ final moments, Mr Thompson said “I believe he was blinded by smoke and possibly a very fierce burst of fire.”

“Could not see the road, ran up the bank, and the vehicle had come back onto the road, was still on its wheels, but the (firefighting) trailer had tipped over on its side … it still contained water.”

All three cottages on Mr Burns’ property were completely destroyed.

Mr Burns’ partner, Estrelita “Threlly” Cabacungan, described him as a “real bushman” who was “always helping people”.

“I miss Colin every day, all the time, I am moving on very slowly, Colin is in my heart and I’m very teary-eyed,” Ms Cabacungan said in a statement read out by Ms Stevens.

The inquest continues.

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