Volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul died when 'fire tornado' overturned 10-tonne truck

Bushfires

McPaul, 28, who died while fighting bushfires 70km east of Albury, was expecting his first child in May Follow live bushfire updates

Samuel McPaul, 28, with his wife Megan. McPaul died when his fire truck was flipped on its roof by extreme winds while fighting bushfires on the NSW-Victoria border.Photograph: NSW RFS via Twitter

A volunteer firefighter who died when his truck flipped amid a "fire tornado" near the NSW-Victoria border was expecting his first child in May.

Samuel McPaul died on Monday just before 6pm when the truck he was travelling in crashed at Jingellic, about 110km east of Albury in NSW. An emotional Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons on Tuesday said the 10-tonne truck was hit by winds so extreme at the 26,000-hectare Green Valley fire that it flipped on its roof. The 28-year-old died at the scene.

McPaul was expecting his first child in May with his wife Megan, whom he married last year. An RFS spokesman said the truck was hit by a "freakish weather event that had to be seen to be believed", best described as a "fire tornado". McPaul and his crew were sent to a fire in the upper Murray, started by a lightning strike, that grew so large it created its own weather system, known as a pyrocumulonimbus.

"That cloud became very unstable," the spokesman said. "It had a height of around about 8,000 metres and unfortunately, it appears to have collapsed during yesterday's deteriorating weather, causing erratic fire behaviour and erratic winds at the foot of the fire in all directions. "We had a crew working in a paddock that were trying to muster up some cattle that were caught in the corner of the paddock. They were only 50 metres from a gate that they entered and they were on flat ground with very low fuel.

"The crew decided to move away from that area and, quite unexpectedly, very suddenly, they experienced extreme winds, and what could only be described as a fire tornado, that lifted the back of the truck, fully inverted it and landed it on its roof, trapping three people, three crew that is, and unfortunately, one of them fatally." Veteran firefighters could not believe what they had seen, the spokesman said. Two male colleagues in the fire truck - aged 39 and 52 - were injured and taken to hospital.

The 39-year-old was airlifted to The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and remains in a serious condition. A command vehicle was also blown over, injuring one other firefighter. "Sam was a 28-year-old firefighter ...

He was trained and doing everything right on the day when something went wrong and it's just incredibly unfortunate what happened," the spokesman said. According to the Holbrook-based firefighter's social media accounts, he went to school in Broulee on the NSW south coast and took up animal science at Charles Sturt university in Wagga Wagga. He was a representative basketball player in Wagga and coached the sport in Holbrook, and worked as a mechanic.

"He did everything for the right reasons," an RFS spokesman said. "His mother Christine is a wonderful woman who raised him and raised a really good son there. "He gave a lot of his time to basketball in the area. He was a representative player for Wagga and was actually, at the time, undertaking a fair bit of training and coaching for the kids.

Basically, he was putting the community first and what we saw yesterday was just a very unfortunate price to pay for putting the community first." Fitzsimmons travelled south to mourn with McPaul's family on Monday. "I don't think the comprehension has set in yet, of the enormity of the tragedy and the loss," Fitzsimmons told reporters on Tuesday.

McPaul is the third NSW volunteer firefighter to die this bushfire season. Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, died on December 19 when a tree hit their tanker as they were travelling south-west of Sydney. The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, paid tribute to McPaul on Tuesday.

"The RFS has lost another member of its family, a young man fighting fires in his local community," she said. "This brings home to us what NSW is going through - every fire front is a threat to life, a threat to people's life as they know it." Albury RFS district manager Patrick Westwood told reporters McPaul was "a beautiful young man" who was fully equipped and trained and "doing everything right on the day", but Monday's events were unforeseeable.

Scott Morrison said in a statement on Tuesday he had spoken to Megan, and McPaul was "the best of us".

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