At 3am on the morning of December 31, 2019, surf lifesaver Cheryl McCarthy received a phone call that began the longest and most complex emergency callout of her volunteer career.
It also signalled the start of Surf Life Saving NSW's bushfire response on the Far South Coast.
A response that would see teams of volunteer surf lifesavers take responsibility for the lives of over 7000 people as multiple surf clubs set up as emergency evacuation centres.
As the director of lifesaving for the Far South Coast branch, Ms McCarthy is used to emergency callouts becoming more frequent and the incidents she responds to more unusual.
She expects the unexpected and complex emergencies, like the recent NSW bushfires, are becoming the "new normal" for her and thousands of volunteer emergency service personnel like her.
But nothing could have prepared Ms McCarthy and her team for the speed and ferocity of the bushfire emergency that engulfed the Far South Coast region on New Year's Eve 2019 and the scale of the response effort they would be asked to lead that week.
Since becoming a gazetted emergency service organisation in 2018, Surf Life Saving NSW volunteer lifesavers have been tasked to critical incidents in support of other emergency service organisations such as police, Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service.
So it was that on December 31, Surf Life Saving NSW volunteers on the Far South Coast found themselves on the frontline when the call came to respond to the unprecedented bushfire emergency unfolding all around them.
The 3am phone call Ms McCarthy answered was from the RFS requesting Surf Life Saving's support.
In no time a team of volunteers had opened the Bermagui surf club as an evacuation centre and contacted Andy Edmunds to open the Broulee surf club to the north.
Up the road in Batemans Bay, Anthony Bellette received a similar message from the RFS and mustered his callout team of 11 lifesavers to open the Batemans Bay surf club as an evacuation centre as residents in the area began evacuating to the beach.
People, their cars and their animals began pouring in and within a few hours, the three surf clubs at Bermagui, Broulee and Batemans Bay would together be sheltering more than 7000 people as bushfires raged out of control in the area.
And it was the volunteer Surf Life Saving teams, led by Ms McCarthy, Mr Bellette and Mr Edmunds that would be responsible for their welfare, providing those in their care with food, water, shelter and vital medical treatment.
To put the scale of the evacuation in perspective, Bermagui normally has a population of 1500.
But as bushfires approached the area at an unprecedented speed and residents and tourists in a 30km radius of the town were told to evacuate to the beach, the town's population quickly grew to 5000.
These evacuees descended on the Bermagui surf club as the designated evacuation centre.
"It kind of snowballed. For a town of 1500, suddenly having 5000 people arrive at the surf club was mind-blowing," Ms McCarthy said.
"Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer number of people that made their way to our club that day."
Ms McCarthy said compounding the fact 5000 people were arriving at the club, embers from the nearby bushfires began falling from the sky and choking smoke filled the air.
"The smoke was so thick - it was actually dark outside," she said.
"When it was still dark at 9.30am, we realised the sun wasn't going to come up that day.
"It was a very intense time - very stressful."
Sadly as the hours went on the tragedy became more real.
"Throughout the morning people at the club house started to get news that family and friends had lost homes and tragically for some, they'd lost loved ones," Ms McCarthy said.
"The surf lifesaving family rallied around those who needed it. They saw what work needed to be done. There was so much to do and so many who needed assistance."
And the help came from all over with everyone who could lend a hand just jumping into a role that suited their skills.
"We had several medical professionals who stepped into take the lead to help treating serious issues," Ms McCarthy said.
The local medical centre relocated doctors, nurses and equipment to the Bermagui surf club who slept there for 48 hours.
They treated nearly 200 people with breathing difficulties, minor burns and head injuries - mainly caused by people tripping over in the dark.
Local businesses donated food, tents and oxygen cylinders to treat people with respiratory problems.
A local chef swung into action and prepared what Ms McCarthy suggested might have been "the best evacuation meal ever eaten".
Meanwhile, 80km north at Broulee, volunteer surf lifesaver Mr Edmunds had been busy managing a similar situation.
He had been on standby since 3am when he received the call from Ms McCarthy and had opened the surf club for evacuees.
However, unlike Bermagui, Broulee came under direct and significant ember attack with around 1000 people sheltering at the surf club.
"It was my biggest day as a duty officer in terms of complexity and an evolving situation," Mr Edmunds said.
"When the fire hit Broulee and some of the buildings started going up, we called Triple Zero but no RFS crews were available, although there were some helicopters waterbombing some spot fires in the town."
Thinking quickly, he sent the club's all-terrain buggies into the streets, started registering members of the public, triaging vulnerable persons and performing first aid as needed. Volunteer surf lifesavers door-knocked and used loud hailers to evacuate residents who either could not walk to the club or had missed the evacuation message entirely.
At one stage the Broulee surf club itself was threatened by the fires and all 1000 people had to be moved onto the beach.
At the same time, people started arriving at the club with serious injuries.
"Our members, along with Eurobodalla Shire Council Lifeguards, were treating some fairly major burns injuries and a family of six people presented who were all suffering from severe smoke inhalation," Mr Edmunds said.
"We gave them all oxygen and called an ambulance but it took two hours to arrive."
Fortuitously, Surf Life Saving NSW had positioned volunteer liaison officers in the NSW Rural Fire Service Headquarters in Sydney at the beginning of the bushfire crisis.
"We had no power and no mobile phone coverage," Mr Edmunds said.
"But we still had our surf club UHF radios and I was in contact with our Surf Life Saving liaison officer at the Rural Fire Service headquarters in Sydney.
"They were able to relay to us what was going on with the fires."
Fortunately for Broulee residents the weather changed just before a large fire front reached the town and a change in wind direction pushed the fires away from the town.
"The only thing that saved Broulee was the southerly wind that came up the coast at the last minute. It was so strong that it could have stripped paint off your car," Mr Edmunds said.
"We weren't set up to accommodate people overnight so the evacuees either went home or were transported to the Moruya Showground."
Fortunately, for Ms McCarthy, Mr Edmunds and Mr Bellette, the George Bass surfboat marathon event had been called off, due to the bushfires.
The event had brought hundreds of surf lifesavers to the Far South Coast for the week. Wherever they happened to be stuck that day, the competitors and their support crews jumped into action. Many of them made themselves available to assist with the emergency response and were themselves seeking shelter at the surf clubs.
"It was a real team effort. We had the George Bass surfboat crews helping us triage patients, providing medical help," Ms McCarthy said.
"They also helped marshal traffic and assisted with registering people as safe in the evacuation centre. It was an amazing job by everyone."
"Hopefully this is something we never have to witness again, but the compassion and professionalism of our members was at the forefront," Mr Edmunds added.
"I'd like to thank each and every member who assisted throughout this emergency, and if I could also praise Eurobodalla Shire Council, Essential Energy, local police and RFS for their combined efforts in this unprecedented emergency for their devotion and assistance in recovery," he said.
Although the southerly change reduced the immediate threat of the bushfires, the work of the volunteers was not yet over.
Broulee, Batemans Bay and Bermagui surf clubs all stayed open the next day and throughout the following week as community recovery centres.
With roads closed, electricity cut-off and all phone services out for more than seven days along the Far South Coast, the surf clubs became important centres for people displaced by the fires to have a meal, shower, collect groceries and use the free wi-fi that had been set up.
"Our club became a community hub - a safe and trusted space for people to come and have a shower and a feed and to just talk about what had happened to them," club captain Mr Bellette said.
Members of the public contacted Surf Life Saving in the weeks following to praise him and his team for their response during and after the bushfires.
Demonstrating their growing importance as community hubs, Batemans Bay, Broulee and Bermagui surf clubs were established as distribution centres for donated items of food, water, clothing and other essentials as surf clubs and the wider community across NSW rallied to provide support and transport donated goods to the Far South Coast.
Reflecting on the events over New Year's, Ms McCarthy says that the emergency was the biggest response the Far South Coast support operations team and members has had to deal with collectively.
The extent of the response to the bushfires on the Far South Coast demonstrated how the role of surf lifesavers has evolved. It's clear the impact volunteers can have on their communities and how it now extends well beyond the beach.