News & Media

Control at Whiteheads Creek

By: Leith Hillard

Category: Incidents - Bushfire

  10.53 AM 27 December, 2012

Location: District 12 News, District 22 News

Views: 4045

District 12 Operations Manager Peter Creak firmly believes that the 9 December Whiteheads Creek fire, held to about 600 hectares, had the potential to reach 6000 hectares if not for the fantastic work of crews stopping it where they did.

“This was our first significant fire of the season,” he says, “and a number of residences were under pressure. It was difficult, being called in after 9pm and burning in steep terrain. A southerly wind was roaring and it kept up for two days.”

But let’s start at 9.18pm when Whiteheads Creek Captain Scott James got the call. “A dry lightning storm had gone through and was striking the hills close to our area. I was already out at the end of my road looking at the hills.

“By the time I got to the shed I said, ‘Make tankers 10’ – before we even rolled the truck.

“The Chief came to our pre-season briefing and he emphasised, ‘Hit it hard; hit it fast’. That’s just what we did.”

The brigade did some steep off-roading in their 2.4C tanker through a gumtree plantation, with two longtime members also attempting to access the fire in their private farm units complete with radios.

“It was difficult to assess the size in the first half an hour,” continues Scott. “The wind was pushing it northwest to Seymour.

“We got there first and put a tanker load of water on it but it was getting into the bluegums and we’d have to wait for it to come out the other side.

“We ordered in big machinery about 10pm and got six graders and DSE dozers as well as some private dozers and excavators. One main tree was giving us grief and unfortunately fire got into the excavator that was trying to drop it.

“The bluegum slowed up the western flank and the eastern flank was a steep grassland hill where it was burning into the wind.

“Seymour arrived with their FCV and I got in there with Gerard Hard and set up a control point on Kobyboyn Road at 12.30am. That was our anchor point and our line in the sand – we will not let it get past there or it will go all the way to Avenel through the hobby farms.

“Gerard and I controlled the incident together – we were Cherry Tree Control – and his knowledge was invaluable to me. We have a good reputation with each other’s brigades and the team pulled together through necessity.

“No one’s property or business was impacted apart from the bluegum plantation and some sheep loss.

“If it came out of the bluegums it was going to cause some problems on our property. I feel our home is very defendable with one tanker but our fire plan is to start the pump and for my wife Ursula to leave with the kids and dogs. Instead, she started the pump and stayed.

“I called her from the FCV and asked her to call the community because our biggest problem was getting information from the fire to the community. Telstra sent an emergency warning at midnight but we have some older members of our community who don’t have mobile phones and aren’t online.

“We had a defrief at the fire station after the event with the community and the emphasis was on the lack of fire plans or the holes in people’s fire plans. If your fire plan doesn’t work, change it. It’s about making it clear to people that they are responsible for their own lives. The brigade can and will only defend a property to the extent that it’s prepared and we’ll protect a defendable house over an undefendable one.

“Fifty tankers in all attended the fire with the Helitak in by 8am the next day to check hot spots in inaccessible country. To give you an idea of how inaccessible it was, I used a rakehoe on the second day but didn’t use a hose for three days!

“Everyone had praise for our firefighters but also for my wife Ursula who organised food, water and crews. There was a lot of work done in-station.

“Thanks to everyone who attended from me and my brigade.”

Greg Murphy was the Level 3 incident controller working out of Kilmore ICC.

“By 12.10am it was obvious it was going to be complex and protracted,” he says. “We issued warnings and police did a doorknock along two roads. By 1.30pm we saw there was going to be media interest and spreading accurate information is always the challenge. I started a series of interviews with 774, UGFM [Upper Goulburn community radio station] and 3AW and kept it up every 20 minutes until 4.30am. From then on I did two interviews an hour for each of them until I’d done in excess of 30. From 6am we moved onto live crosses with Channel 9, ABC, Gold FM, Sky News and AAP. I even spoke to Australia All Over from Macca.

“It was a multi-layered approach to information and warnings and it was hugely effective. It communicated to people in their houses in the path of the fire and I could tell them that there was still danger and they needed to continue to monitor the media. There was an element of reassuring the community that we were fighting the fire. The key message is, ‘Crews on the ground are doing an awesome job in difficult conditions’. Their loved ones at home know that their work is valued – it’s making a difference.

“The information flow from the fireground was excellent. Between the work on the ground and the really effective use of the media overnight, it was brilliant.”

Last Updated: 22 February 2013