As flames raced towards Hunter houses on two fronts only a few kilometres apart in a pair of small Coalfields townships this week, it was volunteer firefighters who saved homes from being destroyed.
Three houses were damaged at North Rothbury, near Cessnock, while none were harmed at nearby Greta.
Both blazes were rated at the Rural Fire Service's 'emergency warning' level on Tuesday afternoon, amid catastrophic and unprecedented bushfire conditions that gripped much of the eastern part of the state.
The fire at North Rothbury was out by Thursday and the Greta blaze was under control and listed at 'advice' level.
But a flare-up at Greta on Wednesday afternoon meant Thursday was the first time many of the dozens of volunteer firefighters who worked to protect the two communities had a chance to stop and take a breath.
Trevor Kedwell, an 18-year veteran of the RFS, is the deputy captain of the Greta brigade.
He told the Newcastle Herald that his crew - one of the teams that fought the blaze at North Rothbury before they returned to battle the fire at Greta - had been overwhelmed by the appreciation each community had shown firefighters in recent days.
Mr Kedwell said the fires on Tuesday were not particularly large, but "they hit hard and were very intense".
"On a normal bushfire day, we have the ability to get there, sum the situation up and develop a plan of attack," he said.
"We didn't have that opportunity this time. It was a case that the fire was moving hard and so quick [at North Rothbury], on arrival you were just straight into it.
"Our rule book says we should never take a flame height in excess of three metres front-on. We didn't have that opportunity at North Rothbury - the flames were three or four times that height but they were coming straight over Wine Country Drive directly on top of houses.
"So we just had to throw the rule book out the window."
Mr Kedwell said he last fought fires in conditions like he experienced on Tuesday in 2003 at Abernathy, though the catastrophic fire rating did not exist at the time.
He said RFS teams had been fighting fires out west since September and had seen the drought make conditions progressively worse.
"It's as simple as this: there's not going to be any let-up unless we get rain," he said.
"I don't care if we have another 10,000 firefighters, it's not going to make any difference until we get rain. It's not going to stop.
"The ground is getting drier, the depth of ground fuel is getting heavier - the only solution is rain."
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