Selfless dedication to the Thredbo community for more than half of his life has earned David “Spike” Milliken the honour of being named a finalist in the 2020 Rotary NSW Emergency Services Community Awards.
David, 61, has been a retained firefighter with NSW Fire and Rescue for 33 years, including three decades as a captain of Station 451 Thredbo.
He was also a member of the Thredbo Ski Patrol for more than 30 years, helping rescue injured and lost people on the mountain slopes. Having given up skiing, David now helps staff inside the medical centre treat the hundreds of hapless skiers and snowboarders who pass through its doors each winter.
For the past five years, he has also been part of a team which provides a community-first response for NSW Ambulance.
Born in Sydney, David has called the Snowy Mountains home for the past 40 years.
“I came here with the intention of working in the lodges for one winter, but I fell in love with the place,” he says. “It’s a beautiful environment to be in, a great area to live and I basically never went back to Sydney.”
The Alpine Way, between Jindabyne and Thredbo, is where he has made his home and, outside his work for the emergency services, he runs a landscaping business and carries out civil works in Thredbo Village.
However, everything else comes second when he gets a call-out – 24/7, 365 days a year, he drops everything and it’s go, go, go.
David’s knowledge and expertise in both firefighting and rescue operations, often in extreme weather conditions, has been invaluable to Fire and Rescue NSW. He was at the front of operations during the Thredbo landslide in 1997, the Snowy Mountains bushfires in 2003, Tathra bushfires in 2018, and the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, as well as a number of blazes across the border in Victoria during the years.
Every event has left a lasting, often haunting, memory.
Tragedy struck the mountains at 11.40 pm on 30 July, 1997, when a large amount of dirt slid down a hill, knocking Carinya Lodge off its footing and pushing it onto a second lodge, Bimbadeen, burying 19 men and women under the rubble and capturing worldwide attention.
Only one person, Stuart Diver, survived.
“The worst thing about it was that we could not determine if it was three buildings missing or two; it was such a devastating site,” says David, who led the initial emergency response from Thredbo Fire Station.
“Bimbadeen Lodge was staff quarters. We knew them all which was a sad thing. One of my firefighters was in that building.
“Adrenalin keeps you going, and going, then the emotion of it all – the reality – really hits you days down the track.
“After Stuart was pulled out, I think a lot of us had a bit of an emotional meltdown.”
David and his team were recognised for their tireless efforts, receiving a Unit Commendation for Meritorious Service.
Six years later, the mountains were under siege again, this time from bushfire, with a large area of the Kosciuszko National Park impacted and Thredbo Village under threat.
“Luckily, we had done some backburning prior to it arriving which pulled it up right where we needed it to stop,” says David.
Tathra was less lucky. The seaside haven on the NSW South Coast was devastated on 18 March, 2018, when a bushfire, fanned by strong winds, destroyed 65 homes.
“We arrived three hours after the initial onslaught and worked all night,” says David. “All the services that were there stopped a lot more homes from being lost.”
While the past summer’s bushfires were widely anticipated after years of devastating drought, Mother Nature turned on an unprecedented firestorm that stretched from Queensland to Victoria, and to South Australia.
With resources stretched to the limit, Thredbo was evacuated amid concerns that spotfires would cause a catastrophe.
“Suburbia is spreading into the bush and weather events are getting more severe,” says David. “But over time you do get these big events every now and then.”
Helping people at their most vulnerable is what continues to motivate David.
“I do it for the community; I enjoy giving,” he says, echoing Rotary’s motto of ‘Service Above Self’.
But he is also the first to admit there are some tragedies, including road accidents, that “stick in your head”.
From his frontline experience, David has not only supported members of the community affected by trauma, but has worked within the fire service to develop strategies dealing with mental health problems of employees severely affected by those events.
David – who was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in the 2013 Australia Day Honours – says he is honoured to be named a finalist in the Fire and Rescue Services NSW category of the 2020 Rotary NSW Emergency Services Community Awards.
“There’s a lot of pride in winning an award such as this; it keeps us going,” he says.
“Rotary does so much for the community, and by putting on these awards to thank people such as myself it makes you believe there’s someone out there who appreciates what you’re doing.”
David’s fellow award finalists are Anthony Camilleri (station commander, Bankstown Fire Station), Craig Gordon (fire investigator, Greenacre) and Greg Rood (bushfire officer, Sydney Olympic Park).
The winners will be announced on Friday, 30 October.