Four hundred Canberra firefighters, past and present, stood at attention outside the Holy Family Catholic Church in the Canberra suburb of Gowrie as Mr Balfour’s coffin, draped in an Australian flag, was borne aloft. Police, ambulance officers and emergency service members joined the guard of honour.
The Australian Federal Police Pipes and Drums, their kilts stirred by a warm breeze and the side-drums muffled, played Highland Cathedral and Amazing Grace.
The Governor-General’s husband, Michael Bryce, comforted Mr Balfour’s widow, Celia, and their three children, Alison 14, Daniel, 13, and Frances, 10. Frances clutched her father’s yellow fire helmet as his coffin slid into the hearse.
Mr Balfour, 46, was the only firefighter killed in this month’s bushfire catastrophe in Victoria.
The Canberra man had gone south to help the firefighting effort, figuring, his wife said, that he was repaying a debt to Victorian firefighters who came to help him and his mates fight Canberra’s disastrous bushfire in 2003.
He died on Tuesday, February 17, when a limb from a burnt tree fell on him as he tried to connect a hose on the back of his outfit’s fire tanker in the forest at Cambarville, 20 kilometres from Marysville.
Such are the vagaries of life and death: as the sun beat down on the firefighters outside the Holy Family Church yesterday, they drifted towards the shade of a stand of eucalyptus trees.
Mr Balfour, a professional firefighter for 11 years, loved his job so much that he told his brother Peter that even if he won the lottery he would be back at the station the next day.
He was an outdoors man. He hunted, he was a crack shot, he rode a motorbike and he talked about getting a boat. He was a bit of a larrikin, too, and took pleasure in blowing things up with explosives.
A plumber by trade, he could fix just about anything, and when the ways of the world puzzled him, he delved into books to try to figure it out.
Former ACT fire commissioner David Prince said Mr Balfour had such an inquiring character he taught himself to pick locks, to make beef jerky, to master butchery and to understand computers.
His sister-in-law Shayne Starkey told mourners that Mr Balfour’s great joy was spending time with his wife and children. She spoke of a carefree summer’s day just weeks ago when the whole family sought the cool of the Goodradigbee River near Canberra, and she recalled Mr Balfour swinging from a rope and dropping with a whoop into the water.
He was, she said, courageous and easy-going. He went diving, shrugging off warnings about sharks by declaring, “If the sharks don’t get you, something else will.”
He was right.
When all the words were spoken and all the psalms sung, Mr Balfour’s coffin was escorted through Canberra’s suburban streets by a vintage fire-truck, a modern fire tender and an ambulance. Overhead, helicopters from SouthCare, the ACT Rural Fire Services, completed the cortege.
The vehicles stopped outside two of the fire stations where Mr Balfour had worked. Firefighters on duty saluted.
His body lies now in the Woden Valley lawn cemetery with a Father’s Day plaque and a wedding ring.