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CFA firefighter helps out during WA fire
During October this year, a lightning strike ignited a major grassfire on Ellenbrae Cattle Station in the heart of the Kimberley in Australia’s far north-west.
Temperatures regularly surpass 40 degrees in this region’s dry season, and the sun-scorched landscape is anything but forgiving. The dry, dense scrubland fuelled the fire over several days, spreading it right across to Mt Barnett and the Gibb River Road.
Bacchus Marsh Fire Brigade firefighter Chris Eggleston was on a swagging trip, refuelling at Mt Barnett Station when he heard the news. Chris’s trip had taken him deep into cattle and billygoat country and he was well aware of the perils of this dry and dusty terrain. By then, the fire had burnt for nearly 10 days. ABC Kimberley radio reported the front to be 180 kilometres long, with the fire impacting six or seven cattle stations and showing no signs of abating.
It’s common for cattle station operators in this region to leave fires to burn out and use graders to put control lines in place rather than call in emergency services. The long, corrugated roads connecting the disparate communities make it difficult for WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and local park rangers to get in and out during major emergencies.
Chris decided to volunteer to help the next morning.
With 37 years of experience as a CFA crew and strike team leader under his belt, DFES immediately issued Chris with a 24-hour casual firefighter registration. The first priority was to set up a series of water pumps from the river to protect the major assets at Mt Barnett Station.
“The station manager was particularly concerned about the 2,000 head of new cattle, as well as other key structures around the property,” Chris said.
Later that day, Chris teamed up with one of the local indigenous workers to conduct a spot ember attack and assist with back burning at the fire front.
Chris described the intensity of the fire as being very different to what we experience in Victoria.
“The Kimberley fires don’t tend to crown like ours do, so there was just this really intense heat,” he said.
“One of the local tourist helicopters was brought up to give us some aerial oversight. From up in the air, this was one of the most intense grassfires I’ve ever seen.”
Chris also supported the back burning operations on Mt Barnett Station and the Gibb River Road. After three days, additional park rangers and support crews from nearby stations finally arrived and Chris was released.
The fire continued to burn for some time. By the end of October it had burnt over 17,000 square kilometres or 1.7 million hectares.
It wasn’t until some weeks later, when Richard Patterson, station manager of the Mt Barnett Cattle Company, contacted Bacchus Marsh Urban Fire Brigade on Facebook that Chris’s fellow CFA members were made aware of the role he had played in the WA fire.
“Chris turned up just at the right time,” Richard wrote to the brigade.
“He was thrown straight into the action in the Police Valley, where the fire was pushing hard on the breaks and spotting over.”
Richard said Chris was a great help during the spot ember attack, and he also played a pivotal role in coordinating the other firefighters, rangers and parks and wildlife crews.
“We’d like to pass on our deep appreciation for what he did for us,” Richard wrote.
Many CFA brigades have informal volunteer swapping programs in place, and there’s scope to build this concept into our programs more broadly.
In 2014 CFA’s Brigade Support Program ran a pilot called ‘Vols on Hols’ through Apollo Bay Fire Brigade, tapping into this notion that firefighters can make themselves available while they are on holidays to support other brigades.
While this pilot was limited to firefighters within South West Region, Brigade Support Program Manager for South West Katrina Morgan said there is definitely an opportunity to revisit and expand the Apollo Bay pilot in the future.
“We’re always keen to explore and develop new approaches that will grow volunteerism and strengthen our brigades’ sustainability,” Katrina said.
“This is a great initiative that would provide much needed support to CFA brigades, particularly during peak tourism periods.”