A heroic rescue at the height of the New Year's Eve bushfires has seen two Far South Coast firefighters awarded for their bravery.
Firefighter John Gallagher from the Tathra Rural Fire Brigade and senior deputy captain Nathan Barnden from the Jellat Brigade have each been awarded the Rural Fire Service Commissioner's Commendation for Bravery.
On Tuesday May 4 the NSW Rural Fire Service celebrated St Florian's Day, the patron saint of firefighters. Each year they come together to recognise volunteers and staff who have gone above and beyond.
Nominated by their peers for their extreme acts of bravery during the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, both John and Nathan attended the awards ceremony on Tuesday morning to accept their commendations.
Both men were recognised for their bravery in saving the lives of 13 people who were in grave danger on New Year's Even in 2019 in the Badja Fire that hit Quaama.
They vividly remember when they received the call that seven people including five children were in danger in Quaama.
"This is something that still sits with me, those five children, just the impact going forward," Mr Barnden said.
Chris Pauling is the grandmother of those children and she, with her daughter-in-law Jess were trapped under a blanket with those children that night when the 17-acre hobby farm at Quaama became surrounded by fire.
"We were told we had 48 hours to make a decision about leaving; four hours later it was all gone," she said.
Her son Troy and husband Alan were also on a property 25km away and were forced to hide in behind a brick barbecue at the rear of the house and use a fridge to shield themselves from the flames. Troy was badly burnt and Alan also sustained injuries.
Ms Pauling remembers the moment when she heard the two firefighters at her door.
"John was the one who came screaming at my door when we were all huddled, I had all those kids under the lounge. They are our heroes, I don't know how to say how I feel."
Ms Pauling said many of her grandchildren still have nightmares about the inferno they found themselves caught in.
Mr Barnden's continued work in the realm of mental health was also recognised at the ceremony.
He regularly appears in front of the media to retell his story and advocates for firefighters and those impacted by the fires. One of his key goals being to help break down the stigma around seeking help for mental health.
"I would say there's no shame about having nightmares," he said about the children's experience, "I still do, it's like I'm right there back in that moment.
"For me at least I can reconcile and understand that it was a nightmare, but for those children it will be a long and tough journey, but they still have a life and they will need to learn how to go on with those memories."
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Mr Barnden knows loss and hardship firsthand and although humbled, these events can be quite sombre for him when he thinks about his uncle and cousin who sadly perished in the fire defending their home in Cobargo at the time.
"I am incredibly proud that I've been nominated and that John was beside me on the day, much like on that New Year's Eve day, and I am just honoured. But for me it's a constant reminder of what we went through and what we lost.
"But it's also a reminder to continue to work harder and help our communities be better prepared."
Mr Gallagher shared this sentiment about feeling honoured, but also that his thoughts return to those fallen firefighters who were also recognised on Tuesday.
"It's certainly a thought provoking day, hearing the names of those four fallen firefighters, you think it could have been Nathan and myself but it was only because of luck the we were able to get those people out safely that night and that we were able to also get out," he said.
Both men mentioned they felt as though they were different people after that horrific night in 2019.
Mr Gallagher wanted to also acknowledge, "that there were were so many people including farmers, other emergency service personnel and community members who did heroic acts that night who haven't been formally recognised, but I am honoured to be recognised with the heroic effort of those who have now deceased."
"It's comforting to know that these boys have been recognised," said Ms Pauling who attributed her family still being whole to these two brave men.
"I am so so glad that they have some tiny, well I think it is tiny, recognition. What they should have is a great big medal around their neck and a neon sign," she said.
She sent the two men a text message with a photo of her family gathered for Christmas and the grandchildren opening their presents at the end of 2020 with the caption, "this is still possible because of you".
Despite the hardships, neither man would change their involvement with the RFS and would encourage other members of the community who may be thinking about joining to get involved.
"It's more than fighting the fires, there is such a strong bond and friendship in the brigades... I started as a 16 year old kid and have now turned that passion into a career," said Mr Barnden.