19 August 2021

Vale Dennis McTaggart: tributes flow for Tathra's gentleman firie

| Sally Hopman
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Dennis McTaggart with young boy holding thank-you sign

The late Dennis McTaggart was a hero to South Coast youngsters. Photo: Tathra Rural Fire Service.

To his colleagues at the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), locals from his beloved town of Tathra, and friends and family throughout NSW, Dennis McTaggart was the same bloke – always a gentleman and the best of mates.

Tributes are flowing in for Dennis, a former RFS inspector, who died on 8 August, 2021, after a lifetime of helping others.

Although he spent much of his life in Sydney, Dennis came to love the NSW Far South Coast – specifically Tathra – during his working life when he sold fire equipment. He’d spend every holiday there, fulfilling his passions of surfing, fishing and boating.

“He really loved Tathra,” says his son, Scott McTaggart. “It was always his favourite holiday spot.”

Few people were surprised when Dennis moved to Tathra permanently about 10 years ago, and even fewer were surprised when he continued devoting this new chapter in his life to his old love of fighting fires.

“I don’t think he ever officially joined the Tathra brigade,” says Scott. “He was just always there when he was needed. He would share his knowledge with the crews, and just do whatever was needed.”

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When the horror Tathra bushfires rocked the coastal community in 2018, Dennis was one of the first on the truck. He saved lives and property, but according to Scott, you’d never hear that from him.

“He never talked about that side of his work,” says Scott. “He kept all that kind of thing to himself.

“He was the sort of bloke who would look after his crew first before himself.

“For him, the most important thing was to make sure everyone else was OK. He always put himself last.”

Dennis’s best mate, Dennis Whitford, from Tathra, couldn’t agree more. The two Dennises were friends for more than 50 years, a friendship Dennis Whitford could not value higher.

The two met in Sydney as young men playing soccer, but lost touch in later years. Turns out, when Dennis McTaggart was doing the rounds of NSW selling fire equipment, he’d check out all the phone books in the motels he was staying at to see if he could track down the other Dennis.

“He couldn’t find me so he ended up asking a detective mate of his if he could find me,” says Dennis Whitford. “He probably shouldn’t have done that, but it worked out in the end. He came to visit me down at Tathra and ended up moving down here.

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“We still played soccer for a while and went fishing, but sadly we both got too old for surfing.

“He was my best mate. Down here, he would do anything for anyone. He would be in anything.”

Dennis McTaggart was a man who kept his troubles to himself, and Dennis Whitford says the only time he knew his mate was really struggling was after the 2003 Canberra firestorm.

Dennis McTaggart had offered to help when the fires hit the capital on 18 January, 2003. His lifetime of firefighting was put to good use where and when it was needed by crews on the ground.

“But after the Canberra fires, I remember he found it all very taxing when they had these inquiries and he had to explain how and why some of the decisions were made,” says Dennis Whitford.

“For them to ask him to explain why he did what he did was very hard for him. I know that for a fact.

“I know it hurt him because he was very thorough in everything he did, and he’d been doing it his whole life.”

Dennis McTaggart fighting shop fire with hose

Despite Dennis McTaggart’s senior roles in the NSW Rural Fire Service, he was always hands-on during a crisis. Photo: Supplied.

Dennis McTaggart came up through the ranks after joining the RFS in 1968, and was very proud to eventually make inspector. He held many senior roles during his career, attending major emergencies throughout NSW, and wherever he was called out to.

Despite Dennis McTaggart’s long and lauded career, Scott says his father had a special plaque to mark 43 years of service, but when he moved to Tathra he made it clear he just wanted to be part of the crew.

One of his favourite photographs was not of him heroically fighting a huge blaze, but of him cooling down a large gas cylinder at Tathra bottle shop.

No funeral was held because of COVID-19, but a celebration of the life of Dennis McTaggart will be held once restrictions are lifted.

“We probably shouldn’t have, but last night Scott and I snuck out and shared a quiet ale for him,” says Dennis Whitford. “He would’ve liked that.”

Dennis McTaggart is survived by his partner, Eileen, and sons, Scott and Lachlan.

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