An Australian community is mourning the loss of two volunteer firefighters who died in New South Wales as they were battling the ravaging wildfires.
Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, lost their lives on Thursday after a tree fell down southwest of Sydney, causing their truck to roll off the road, the Associated Press reported.
The men died at the scene near Buxton, while three other firefighters suffered injuries, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service. They were transported to a hospital, the AP reported.
“This is an absolutely devastating event in what has already been an incredibly difficult day and fire season,” a spokesperson for the fire service said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his condolences in a statement, calling the two men — who were best friends and both fathers to 19-month-old children — some of Australia’s most courageous people.
“I express my sincere condolences and sympathies to the families of the firefighters who have so tragically been killed overnight,” Morrison wrote. “They were bravely defending their communities with an unmatched spirit and a dedication that will forever set them apart amongst our most courageous Australians.”
“Their sacrifice and service saving lives and saving properties will be forever remembered,” he added.
Morrison, 51, also said he would be cutting his leave short to return to Sydney amid the “tragic events” and that “the Federal Government stands ready to deploy whatever further assistance State and Territory authorities request to manage this disaster.”
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told news.com.au. that Keaton and O’Dwyer were close friends who were “well-respected” and from a “close-knit brigade.”
“They work together, socialize together, they’re very interactive together,” Fitzsimmons explained. “Their respective partners and wives shared a lot in common with their camaraderie and connection with the brigade.”
“Geoff has a young son Harvey, and Andrew has a young daughter Charlotte, and both of those children were born two days apart back in May so they’re 19 months of age, which just terrible,” he continued, adding that the families were in “extraordinary shock”.
Keaton was serving as the Horsley Park Brigade deputy captain after reportedly joining the Rural Fire Service in 2006, according to the Daily Mail.
Fitzsimmons said his family had a tradition of volunteering and Keaton’s father was also a firefighter who was battling the Gospers Mountain blaze at the time of his son’s death.
O’Dwyer, also the father to two young sons, joined the service in 2003, news.com.au reported.
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In the wake of their deaths, a GoFundMe page has been set up to help the two men’s families, with more than $120,000 being raised in just 19 hours.
“We, as a community, can give something back to the families of these two respected members of the community for their service to the community, and the sacrifice they made,” the page reads.
As of Thursday, the Rural Fire Service said 100 fires continue to burn across New South Wales with conditions expected to worsen due to high temperatures, strong and gusty winds, and low humidity.
A statewide total fire ban was declared for all areas of New South Wales until midnight Saturday.
A seven-day state of emergency was also declared on Thursday. Over 7.4 million acres have already burned, displacing more than 800 people from their homes and killing six, the AP reported.