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Buddy brigades across districts
As a standalone brigade not aligned with a group and two hours from both Marysville and Mansfield, Woods Point, deep in the Great Divide, can rightly claim to be isolated.
This old mining and timber township is run by a border collie named Skye and has 38 residents and about 70 dwellings.
The township was destroyed by the Black Friday fires of 1939 but most of the town's 750 residents crammed into mine shafts and survived. The township was again threatened in late 2006 by a lightning strike at Mt Terrible and many residents evacuated.
Upper Ferntree Gully 1st Lieutenant Mark Goodchild was strike team leader of crews tasked with saving the town. During a week-long deployment, connections formed between Woods Point and Upper Ferntree Gully members have now developed into a buddy relationship between the two brigades four hours apart.
The practical benefits are two brigades swapping skills and training together twice a year, one with an urban skill set and the other with bushcraft such as chainsaw use and four-wheel driving.
“We initially passed on some of our equipment and doubled their hose supply and we’ve since given them branch and fittings,” said Mark who remains one of the dynamos behind the buddy relationship.
“We’re a brigade in the lower Dandenong Ranges with two four-wheel drives but a lot of members without the driving experience. Woods Point is in rough and mountainous terrain where there are dirt roads and off-roading.
“We take our rookies and recruits up there for a fantastic and very long bonding day of driving and training that gives them a feel for what it’s like to be deployed on a strike team.”
In fact, one Upper Ferntree Gully member was deployed on their first strike team just one week after a training day at Woods Point.
“Woods Point had the car training prop this year,” continued Mark, “and we trained on it together which was a bonus. We all trained together on their 2.4C medium tanker. We all draught water out of their river, the Goulburn.
“We get more out of it than Woods Point.”
Woods Point Training Officer Andrew Merlo might disagree.
“They bring their ultralights up and we might run a grass and scrub scenario with our tanker as the mothership,” said Andrew.
“Their captain ‘Mudguts’ [Peter Smith] once came up with their tanker in terrible weather including snow and ran crew leader training, so they really are dedicated but also very generous.
“They continue to pass on their surplus equipment including a barbecue so they arrive with the bread and we cater for the day.”
Upper Ferntree Gully has 35 operational members and responds to an average 160 calls a year. Woods Point has 20 members, 12 of them operational, and responds eight to 10 times a year including into the Thompson Water Catchment in their brigade area.
Andrew remembers Woods Point being “left to its own devices” and declared undefendable during the 2006 bushfire, until current Deputy Chief Officer Garry Cook flew in by helicopter with Operations Manager Stewart Kreltszheim and “turned the tactics around”.
Garry remembers “being about one hundred metres off the ground above the Woods Point Fire Station and we could see 42 people from the community looking up at what they were considering was hope. We retreated with the leaders of the fire brigade and local police officer to build a plan that we then took back to the remaining community members.
“Woods Point brigade, supported by the then-DSE, had conducted several planned burns over the preceding two years [before 2006] so we had an idea of the fuel load.
“Ultimately District 13 strike teams were mobilised to defend Woods Point. They were initially supported by Operations Manager Paul King and ran the patrols and became the deliverers of messages and the source of truth for the community.”
And the seed of a very fruitful relationship between two buddy brigades.