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Captain on Ouyen emergency
For the first time in living memory, fire threatened to come in to Ouyen on the night on Friday 17 January.
A dry lightning strike on Tuesday in the Bronzewing Bushland Flora and Fauna Park south of Ouyen started a fire about 19 kilometres as the crow flies from town.
“We were called on Wednesday evening just on dark,” says Ouyen Captain Trevor Mills, “and there was a hell of a glow in the sky. We thought we were in trouble but it was still in the park. The Thursday afternoon wind change blew the fire back to the south.
“The district was already heavily committed at Lake Albacutya and other fires but our group and the Southern Mallee group turned out in force to support us along with some brigades from further away.
“Friday night I was in the Local Command Facility at our station trying to coordinate things, keeping an ear to the ground and keeping Melbourne, Mildura, Swan Hill district and our crews informed. Then came the late southerly wind change and it turned pear shaped for a while. The wind, dust and soot on the fireground were so intense that one of our guys told me he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. The glow disappeared and we had no idea where the fire was. If the fire got away to Ouyen we had about an hour’s grace.
“An emergency warning went out and residents were woken at about 11:45pm by phones ringing their heads off and the message given was to stay in place. It was a wake-up call for the town in all senses."
In fact, 608 landline phone messages were answered in the warning area and 1048 text messages were delivered and received.
“I’ve never been so worried," continues Trevor. "When you go to a fire you can always see that red but here what I think happened was the fire went to ground and blew itself out. Still, we made the right call in those conditions and I absolutely support the warning that went out.
“It was a learning curve for me. We’ve never had a fire closer than five kilometres from town – no one has ever told me of anything coming in closer.
“We’ve already had one community meeting talking about what happened and why and it was very well attended. People from the district office came. It’s true to say there was tension by no aggro from the community: people just wanted to understand the situation better and they took it all on board. A lot of lessons have been learned.
“I think a lot of people really woke up to the risk – we’ve always considered ourselves a safe town. CFA is following up over the next few weeks with Community Safety coming to talk about home bushfire plans. They’ll be community training days where people will have support to either improve their plan or create their plan.
District 18 Operations Manager Bill Johnstone calls Trevor Mills Mr Ouyen. The Ouyen Fire Brigade captain is also group officer of the Ouyen and District Group and one of two brigade members awarded the Australian Fire Services Medal alongside Doc Nihill.
“Doc was at the station doing the radio through this,” says Trevor. “He says he can’t hear so well but when things get going he’s just great. He knows the systems. I just admire all he does for us.
“We’ve also had some young people in the brigade really step up. I think this has strengthened the brigade and the group which really united into a strong working unit. Planning over the years by some level-headed people has come to the fore. Even with the district workload, we had about 23 vehicles in the town that Friday night.
“We lost no significant property and that’s a plus in itself.
“Another plus was a thank you barbecue put on by the brigade at our station on the [Tuesday] 21st. It was arranged within about 24 hours and about 200 people turned up. It’s probably right to say that a majority of them had never come into our new station before. We wanted to thank people like the farmers who called us with updates and used their disc ploughs. The stories came out and it turned into the best debrief we’ve ever had. It was a great night and I commend the brigade and the community.”
Local brigades worked until late Saturday 18 January and some strike teams are still out patrolling hot spots. Bronzewing was declared contained within a week, burning 14,500 hectares although very little of it was private land.