DOZENS of school students had to be evacuated and two firefighters hospitalised after a wild grassfire spiralled out of control in Rocky River yesterday.
A derelict house was lost in the blaze as water-bombing aircraft began an assault from the sky while firefighters attacked the flames from the ground.
The fire took hold on a property about 5km out of Uralla and engulfed a few hectares of land in just minutes, building a fire front that threatened six properties.
A watch-and-act emergency warning was issued while 32 students plus teachers were evacuated from Rocky River Primary School.
A waiting bus took them to Uralla, with parents called and just a sign left hanging on the gate.
New England zone RFS Superintendent Steve Mepham said the fire took hold very quickly and engulfed an old house.
“It was going up when we arrived and we’re led to believe it was a disused house,” he said.
“We had the assistance of two fixed-wing, bombing aircraft which were on standby at Armidale, so they got up pretty quickly.”
The fire was believed to have been sparked by a landholder who was slashing a firebreak in preparation for hazard reduction burns. He immediately raised the alarm to RFS crews.
The blaze took hold in the dry grass and raced away from eight RFS trucks as well as four Fire and Rescue NSW brigades, who were called in for backup.
“It has taken out the landowner’s property and crossed the boundary on all four sides,” Superintendent Mepham said.
“It just went in every direction, literally, and the biggest threat was the tail of the fire.
“We do know that we had a house under threat, but we diverted it and extinguished it.
“We had a fly-over in a helicopter and it appears only one structure was lost.”
The blaze also caught RFS crews by surprise, as it threatened to engulf a tanker.
“A tanker called in that they were in a pretty dangerous situation, so they called in a distress,” Superintendent Mepham said.
“They were able to find a way out just in time.”
Two firefighters were taken to hospital and treated for severe smoke inhalation after the fumes got the better of them.
Rocky River Primary School students now have a story to tell after they were taken to Uralla Central School for parents to pick them up.
The Education Department said the school had only practised a routine evacuation on Monday as a precaution, so this time round they were ready.
The fire was downgraded late yesterday afternoon after crews got the upper hand.
But Superintendent Mepham said it was a timely warning.
“We were under benign conditions; it was favourable weather,” he said.
“But it still escalated quickly and people need to understand how volatile grass fuels can be.”