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Devon North’s tough Black Saturday recovery
While Devon North brigade and CFA life member Peter Nye says that bad weather generally moves into the area from the north west temperate rainforest of the Tarra Bulga National Park and through pine plantations, on Black Saturday fire brands rained down all around as the Delburn Complex came to town.
“The first pager message at 12:02pm called us south to Alberton West,” said Peter, “but we told them it wasn’t safe to travel. We needed everyone here. We warned our two caravan parks that something was coming and on the way back I was putting out fires all over.
“We then got a page to go to Koornalla near Traralgon South but it would have taken us up to an hour to get there. By then the fire was four kilometres away in the bush and we saw how quickly it travelled; it rocketed in seconds. Heaps of people were coming down the Tarra Valley leaving the Callignee fire.”
The brigade was then called to the paddocks at the back of Yarram. Comms was scratchy, radio chatter was rife and members were also fielding calls from locals asking, “What’s happening? What should I do?”
The 6pm wind change was imminent when nearby pine trees exploded and local brigades were called into the Yarram industrial park to safeguard the area’s major employment centre. Another 100 metres and it would have reached the main street.
“The wind howled,” continued Peter. “The pager started off again but this time about houses under threat in Devon North, but we had a battle on our hands in Yarram.”
If magical thinking is the power of hindsight to come up with a perfect solution that was never possible in the real world, this is where Devon North members would apply it.
“We saved Yarram but we lost Devon North,” says Peter – a small statement that sums up countless sleepless nights thinking, ‘If only we could have, we would have, we should have…’
“I called Ops and said, 'Send help,' and they said, 'We have no help to send,'” continued Peter. “I said, ‘Then I reckon we’re nearly knackered and you can kiss our arses goodbye.’”
Two locals came close to losing their lives. Six or seven houses were lost and numerous sheds and outbuildings, while one person lost their herd of beef cattle.
The fire went through quickly. Julian Hay, Paul Harkin and others drove around in the fire truck all night while Peter drove around in his ute, talking via UHF to his son Shannon who was road clearing in a tractor.
The brigade was then out every day for weeks fighting fires.
For Julian, Black Saturday is so clear he can almost give a timeline, but the weeks afterwards blur. One good memory was arriving at Yarram Fire Station covered in dust, ash and with filthy goggles and being handed face wipes by the local Juniors.
“We could clean out our eyes and almost feel human again,” he said.
There was a community gathering in Devon North after the fires.
What stuck with Peter was the question, “’Why was Devon North brigade not here when you should have been?’ That hurts, but we all know that the initial thing is always to stop the fire spread. What would have happened to people’s jobs if we’d lost the industrial zone?”
“People say stupid things and don’t see the bigger picture,” said Julian. “There were irrelevant comments like, ‘Why did you knock over my fence?’
“It seems now that people are more prepared but, when the adrenaline kicks in, will they do what they’ve planned?”
District 10 Peer Coordinator Allan Cracknell is familiar with the struggles members may face once the emergency has passed.
“Disasters dislocate and disrupt. All combatting and support agencies do the best they can with the resources and personnel available,” he said.
“Life is never quite the same after the event. Getting back to normal is a new normal.
“Fortunately people look out for each other and support comes from many sources. We have survived not because of the millions spent but by the many acts of kindness and care, seen and unseen, from individuals and groups.
“As part of that, the CFA peer program is available to all CFA people and their families. Best wishes to all in the Yarram area.”