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2 civilians, firefighter die in Australia bushfires

By Darryl Coote
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2 civilians, firefighter die in Australia bushfires
More than 3,000 firefighters were battling 120 blazes Tuesday evening in New South Wales, Australia. Photo courtesy of New South Wales Rural Fire Service/Twitter

Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Authorities confirmed Tuesday that three people are dead including a firefighter and another person is missing in southeastern Australia where thousands of firefighters battle over 100 bushfires that are inflicting widespread damage.

New South Wales Police said in a statement it was believed that two men, ages 63 and 29, were killed overnight on their property west of Cobargo.

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An unnamed woman said she had discovered the bodies Tuesday morning, according to police.

The woman said she had left the house the night previous but her husband and son stayed behind to protect their property and farm equipment.

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NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said police found the bodies of the two men earlier Tuesday in the Cobargo house.

"That's, of course, a tragedy for their family and friends and the great community," he said.

A third person, described as a 72-year-old man, is missing west of Narooma, some 25 miles east from where the two bodies were found.

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Worboys said police will try to make their way to the house "where, unfortunately, we think that the news there will not be good either."

The deaths follow NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons announcing earlier Tuesday during a press conference that Samuel McPaul, a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter, had died Monday night when a 10-tonne firetruck he was a passenger on was blown off the road by a "fire tornado" in the small town of Jingellic near the border with the state of Victoria.

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Fitzsimmons, visibly shaken, said McPaul was "well respected and admired throughout the local community" and leaves behind a wife pregnant with their first child.

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"As you would expect, the family is grieving and it's been a very difficult night and it would be fair say I don't think comprehension has set in yet the enormity of the tragedy and the loss," he said.

Two others on the truck were also injured, including one person who was transferred to a hospital in Melbourne after having sustained serious injuries.

A second firetruck working in the field was blown over and two other firefighters were enveloped by flames during the same extreme wind event, causing them to sustain burns to their face and airways, he said, adding one person was sedated and incubated and both were flown to a Sydney hospital.

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"The local crews that were able to catch up with in the field at the accident scene described what they experienced as truly horrific," he said, adding the winds were strong enough to flip the firetruck on its roof.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian offered her sympathies to McPaul's family, calling him a hero and that he will "always be remembered."

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"Just heartbreaking," she said on Twitter in an earlier statement Monday. "A brave firefighter has lost their life protecting the community east of Albury."

McPaul was the third firefighter to have died in NSW in the past two weeks.

NSW RFS said service flags were flown at half-mast out of respect for McPaul.

As of 6 p.m., the NSW Rural Fire Service said more than 3,000 firefighters were battling 120 fires of which 68 were not contained.

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