The scream pierced the air. I’d been immersed in my magazine with the only sounds being the noisy croaking frogs coming from the river below.
I thought someone had seen a snake. But the second scream was blood curdling. I jumped up, jolted out of my lazy afternoon.
We were camped at Warburton Bridge last weekend, on the banks of the peaceful Loddon River, an overnight getaway with friends. And our quiet ordinary day was about to be turned on its heels.
As I ran behind our camper I saw the flames. Plumes of intense fire metres high, just feet from their van. The generator was on fire and the van was alight.
A man was standing, dressed in shorts, singlet and thongs, trying to extinguish it. His partner, the woman screaming, was hysterical.
I registered all this in an instant, yelled “fire” and darted back to our campsite calling for help and fire extinguishers.
Within seconds everyone sprang into action. By the time I got back to the site he’d caught alight, rolled onto the ground, into survival mode, doing the right thing, trying to minimise the burns. Keeping his mouth closed to keep the fumes from his lungs.
We got him away from the fire and once he was safe our mate and fellow camper Greg, an experienced firefighter with the MFB (Metropolitan Fire Brigade) took charge of the fire. Always on duty it seems.
We found out later the man had been trying to refuel his generator with petrol near the caravan and the pilot light from the inside fridge had ignited the fumes causing an explosion.
Nearby campers raced over to help. One was a trainee nurse and it wasn’t long before water appeared from everywhere, bottles of water, a tub of water for his arm to be plunged into. There was water flowing as we all did our bit to keep his body cool.
He was severely burnt.
Greg had rung 000 emergency and handed me the phone. As I gave them all the details I also spoke to the man, Joe, trying to keep him calm and reassure him that help was on the way.
He was coherent but clearly in a lot of pain and slowly going into shock.
It was a relief when the cavalry arrived.
And they arrived in their droves. Two fire trucks, the paramedics, police crews. That’s our camper in the background.
It didn’t take long for an assessment to be made. There was to be no road trip to hospital. He needed to get there quickly.
It was to be a trip by air.
The road was blocked off by the police in readiness for the landing. It wasn’t long before the $21 million dollar air ambulance helicopter made its presence felt.
It was a precision manoeuver on the other side of the bridge from our campsite.
He was in good hands and within 25 minutes from take off would land at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, one of the best burn units in the state.
It proved how easily things can turn nasty. Accidents take only a split second.
A day that had been peaceful and ordinary had turned so quickly into one of disaster.
But it could have been far worse. I’m grateful we were there to help. I shudder to think of the outcome had they been alone.
It made me think about our upcoming big trip next year, the remoteness of the outback and the need to be mindful and prepared.
Some simple tips and lessons learnt this weekend:
- Be very careful with petrol. Always refuel at least five metres away from any ignition source.
- Have a fire extinguisher on stand by. Check and maintain them regularly.
- Carry plenty of water
- It’s crucial to have proper communication. You never know when you’ll need it.
- In the event of a fire contact 000 immediately (in Australia) and 911 (in the USA)
I was also reminded that kindness and good will is not lost. The amount of people who offered their skills, water and help was heartwarming.
To all my fellow campers and travelers out there, be mindful and stay safe.
Happy and safe travels, where ever you are.
Postscript: I’ve been in touch with Joe’s family. His burns were severe but after a couple of weeks in hospital and a number of skin graft operations he’s now home again, healing and on the road to recovery. I send him our warmest wishes.