News & Media

Ash Wednesday speech from service

By: Leith Hillard

Category: Events / Fundraising / Offers

  9.46 AM 19 February, 2013

Location: General

Views: 2817

CFA Acting Chair Claire Higgins delivered the following speech at the service at St John's Anglican church in Upper Beaconsfield.

After 30 years, Ash Wednesday remains a deep wound within CFA.

On that day – 16 February 1983 – 180 fires burned across south-eastern Australia fanned by winds of up to 110 kilometres an hour. Fires raged in the Dandenongs at Belgrave Heights, Cockatoo and Upper Beaconsfield; in the Otways at Aireys Inlet, Anglesea, Fairhaven and Lorne; near Warrnambool in the Western District; at East Trentham and Macedon in the Central Highlands; at Warburton and elsewhere.

 Those fires claimed the lives of 47 people. Fourteen of them were our own firefighters.

Today we honour the service of those brigade members and together we mourn our loss. We acknowledge the grief that still rests within the families and friends, the neighbours and colleagues of those who died. We know there has been an empty chair at countless celebrations across those 30 years – birthdays and anniversaries missed, trips they would love to have taken, grandchildren never held.

We pay our respects to Nar Nar Goon, Panton Hill, Narre Warren and Wallacedale Fire Brigades that carry a heavy burden of sorrow.  Each of them has found private and meaningful ways to remember and honour their members who never returned from the fireground.

Ash Wednesday was the firefight of their lives. Only Victorians who had lived through the 1939 firestorm could recall such ferocious conditions – conditions in which fire suppression and containment were impossible.

Ash Wednesday saw the largest number of volunteers ever called to duty in Australia up to that time. Members from Nar Nar Goon, Panton Hill, Narre Warren and Wallacedale, took their place in a CFA firefighting contingent 16,000-strong. They joined forces with crews from the agencies we now know as Parks Victoria, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, police, defence force personnel, relief workers and support crews in a contingent 130,000-strong.

Many of those CFA members are now receiving their badges for 40 years, 50 years of service and more. We honour their lifelong dedication to their communities forged in the fires of Ash Wednesday.

While many members of the public fought to save their houses during those dramatic days 30 years ago, the wider public avidly watched television news and read newspaper reports. Many of them were horrified by the threat and impressed by the bravery of the firefighers, but others were so inspired that they got in touch with their local brigade and joined CFA.

Thirty years later, we have exceptional members around the state – captains, group officers, incident controllers, crew leaders, community safety educators – who joined up after Ash Wednesday because they wanted to be part of this proud organisation that protects communities.

They joined up because they were prepared to do the dirty work but also because they wanted to share in the camaraderie. They wanted to be part of something good, and so they are.

But their expertise and general know-how didn’t originate in this generation of firefighters. It comes from the tough lessons learned by those who fought fires in the bush in the 19th century, and the wood cutters, forestry workers and farmers of the 20th century.

The skills of the firefighters who fought the campaign fires of 2003 and the Great Divide fires of 2006/07 grew from the common sense of those who established local bush brigades – in some cases, more than 150 years ago.

The excellent work of fire crews battling the devastating 2009 fires and the Gippsland and Harrietville fires of 2013 descends in a direct line from the lessons learned on Ash Wednesday.

This is just one of the honourable legacies of those who did not return from the fireground in 1983. This is one of the ways their service to CFA and their communities remains alive.

CFA honours those who fought and died on Ash Wednesday and we honour those who fought and lived through Ash Wednesday and other large fires of recent memory.

In standing together through 30 years to remember, share stories and reach out to relatives and friends, Nar Nar Goon, Panton Hill, Narre Warren and Wallacedale Fire Brigades are shining examples of the CFA family.

This is the hidden CFA that only insiders know. This is the CFA that thrives once the truck is back in the station.

The best of CFA is that members make time for each other and their families. They reach out for a quiet chat; drop in for a cuppa or a beer; arrange a neighbourly barbecue; arrange a working bee; make a regular phone call…and they keep up that kindness and consideration for 30 years and counting.

CFA is built on the community mindedness of tens of thousands of Victorians and we honour that ethic here today.

We are in the middle of another tough fire season – one that has challenged firefighters around Australia, but they have not yielded. Experience has taught us so much about command and control; about vehicle design; about tactics; about fire behaviour.

We are a better fire service because of the dedication and hard work of all those who have come before.

Last Updated: 19 February 2013