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As Balmoral burned, one man survived by hiding in a makeshift ‘coffin’ in his backyard

Steve Harrison is lucky to be alive.

The 67-year-old artist became trapped on his property as the Green Wattle Creek fire roared towards his home in Balmoral in the NSW Southern Highlands on Saturday afternoon.

His wife had already evacuated but Mr Harrison had stayed to defend the property. By the time he changed his mind, it was too late.

“I ran to my ute but my garden was already on fire, the driveway was on fire, the road was on fire so I couldn’t evacuate,” Mr Harrison told the ABC.

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With nowhere to go or firefighters to help, the professional potter hid inside a makeshift shelter made out of fireproof ceramic fibres as the flames approached.

“The day before I had actually built myself a small kiln down the back — a coffin-sized kiln — just big enough for me to crawl inside,” he recalled while fighting back tears.

“I was in there for half an hour while the firestorm went over. It was huge, just glowing orange-red everywhere. Just scary. I was terrified.”

He admits he could have died.

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“I could have if I hadn’t thought about plan B. In that little kiln enclosure I made, I had a fire extinguisher, a bucket of water, a drinking water bottle and a fire blanket.”

An early estimate by the NSW Rural Fire Service said at least 20 structures had been lost in the blaze over the weekend.

While Mr Harrison survived, his beloved potting shed, along with his ceramic artworks, burned to the ground.

Over the 43 years he has lived on the property, he has experienced two other bushfires but says this weekend was the worst.

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“This was like a holocaust — this was catastrophic. You can see when you look around, there is just nothing left.”

Despite the ferocity of the fires, his house is still standing.

“I put a lot of money and effort and time into putting dedicated firefighting pumps just to run the sprinklers on the walls and roof. My wife and I spent the day wrapping [the house] up in aluminium foil to reflect the heat.”

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His neighbours’ homes, however, have all been destroyed.

‘The battle of the century’

Elsewhere, volunteer firefighter Russell Scholes lost his home on Saturday night while he was out protecting his neighbours’ properties.

“We were preparing for the battle of the century, which it turned out to be,” he said.

The crew had been called in to protect people and property when the fire quickly moved in.

His colleagues then saw his property was on fire.

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“The guys came over and tapped me on the shoulder and they said ‘sorry’.”

“When I turned around, I saw the house burning. It’s one of those things you think only happens in the movies where the guys fighting the fires lose [their] home, but that close [to where I was] was a bit surreal.”

But he continued to remain working on the property he was already at before returning to his home.

He said important possessions like photographs had been packed up in the car in advance, and although it had been traumatic he remained philosophical about his property.

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“That’s replaceable,” he said, pointing at the pile of rubble that was his former home. “The kids and family aren’t.”

Credit: ABC News

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