Flying Doctor says ‘we’ve got your back’ after Tibooburra fire

Date published

16 Mar 2021

Two RFDS medical teams attended and evacuated the injured from the scene of a fire in the northwest corner of New South Wales. Our assistance didn’t stop there, with mental health teams providing a longer-term commitment of support to a community in crisis.


Nearly 350 km by road from Broken Hill, Tibooburra is the gateway to the Sturt National Park. But after a gas tank explosion on 10 February, the historic Two Storey Hotel was set alight, injuring four people and requiring two RFDS medical crews to provide emergency response.

Due to the severity of the incident, the night shift team on duty – Flight Nurse Louise Vance and Medical Officer Dr Cate Addis quickly realised how challenging this multi-patient emergency would be in such a remote location.

“There were two burns patients, a third patient with deep lacerations to their leg and a fourth patient suffering an asthma attack from smoke inhalation.” said Flight Nurse Louise. “It was quickly triaged and became evident that more staff were required.”

Dr Ross Hendry had been on the day shift, but when his mobile chimed at 11:50 pm that night, he volunteered to assist the teams and the community, as did Senior Flight Nurse Robyn Franklin.

Given the number of casualties, extra equipment also had to be loaded on to the aeroplane. The base engineers pulled out all the stops to get an aircraft ready as quickly as possible, and pilot Captain Dave Rogers soon had the medics en route to the emergency.

Staff in front of plane

Dr Hendry takes up the story: “We split up at the scene so that Cate could do a quick assessment and start caring for the most severely injured patient, while Robyn and I looked after the other three and applied pain relief.”

“We practice, train and drill for these kinds of tasks.” he said, “and when it came to it, things ran very smoothly, especially with our extra hands to assist the night shift team.”

“Plus, the Tibooburra Clinic team, Volunteer Ambulance Officers and Rural Fire Service volunteers had already done some of the essential work before we arrived.”

"We practice, train and drill for these kinds of tasks, and when it came to it, things ran very smoothly."

Dr Hendry

The Flying Doctor team flew two burns patients aged 27 and 51 to Adelaide in a serious but stable condition. The 74-year-old firefighter with shrapnel injuries to his leg was taken to Broken Hill before being transferred to Adelaide, and the Broken Hill engineers turned the aircraft around at double speed again for a crew swap. The patient suffering from smoke inhalation, a young girl, was treated at the scene and allowed to go home. 

But the Flying Doctor’s support for Tibooburra did not end there. After the initial trauma care response, the RFDS turned to support a close- knit community in shock. As well as working closely with the Tibooburra Health Service throughout the emergency retrieval and follow-up, RFDS management teams and staff offered calls of support and found other ways to help.

Our community engagement and mental health teams travelled the 350 km from Broken Hill to lend listening ears and helping hands in person.

One of the families that owned the fire-gutted Two Storey Hotel was the local champion of the RFDS ‘We’ve Got Your Back’ program, which brings people together to offer peer support. Coincidentally, this emergency provides a clear example of the value of the program to outback communities.

In the following days, the RFDS mental health team arranged a BBQ to give people a chance to get together, unwind and debrief about their experience; and acted as a point of contact for people to check-in as to how they were coping.

At the local school, RFDS counsellors helped children deal with the frightening incident, especially in this small community where many children knew someone who had been injured.

Meanwhile, Flight Nurse Andrew Barrett kept in touch with the families of the evacuated patients, updating them on progress at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, giving great relief to the townsfolk.

“The RFDS emergency retrieval teams received flowers from Tibooburra community and from the NSW Health team too,” adds Dr Ross. “While it was really kind of them, this is what we do – though having all the extra hands available was great!”