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Diary account of Violet Town fire
The pager activated 2.33pm on 27 January. This first message was very scrambled. Upon arriving at the station I started the truck, switched the siren off, then turned the radio up to full bore so I could listen for more information.
By John Rhodes, Tallygaroopna brigade
During my preparation, the First Lieutenant Geoff phoned and said he was on the way and a second page stated we needed to go to Dookie station to join a strike team going to a fast-moving fire in the hills above Violet Town, on the Harrys Creek Road, Boho.
Our staging area and kick-off point for this fire would be based at the Violet Town football ground (excuse the pun). When we arrived at the staging ground, the only signs of a fire emergency were two local CFA members, a helicopter that had landed for refuelling, and lots of smoke. This indicated to us that we were one of the first teams to arrive, so we moved on, traveling east along Harrys Creek Rd to the known point of origin of the fire.
The fire was believed to have started from a gas leak in a camper van. The camper was set up on a rise, above Honey Suckle Creek. The owner of the van was away shooting rabbits when his camper caught fire. The surrounding dry grass quickly took the fire away from the camp in a northerly direction, up into the surrounding hills and into the gullies of the Strathbogies.
Our Strike team was a mixture of two and four-wheel drive tankers. This is not a good combination for keeping the trucks and the teams together. With the ability of the 4WD tankers to move up into the rough terrain, we were quickly separated from our ‘herd’ with Dookie and Tallygaroopna tankers being deployed to the top of the range and the other tankers remaining in the foothills near the seat of the fire.
The challenge for me was to remember my 4WD driver training. It had been three years since I’d been driving in such heavy terrain with a tanker. I began roughly but soon gathered enough memory of the driving technique required to get by. The actual driving of the truck over the rough tracks and rocks was not difficult but the Tallygaroopna tanker is big and heavy and badly designed for this type of work. Just because the manufacturer states it’s a 4WD doesn’t mean that’s it’s a good one.
The rise to the top of the range was very slow. At the top of the ridge we could see the smouldering remains of the bush behind and below our position. Looking towards the north we could see the fire moving up the next ridge, the flames dancing along the tops of long dry grass. Every now and then the flames would flare, rising to 6 metres as they hit pockets of very dry blackberry vines.
The instructions were to move along the ridge following what could only be called a goat track, blacking out any flame. This was a preventative measure designed to prevent the fire from creeping over the ridge line to the next valley behind our position. Once we had traversed the ridge it could be up to an hour back for water, so we were frugal with water. For some five hours we didn’t use a drop because the ground between us and the fire was too steep, thick with loose and sharp rocks, granite boulders, and fallen logs and hard to see deep grass-filled depressions.
Violet Town tanker came to grief in these conditions and I was hoping to avoid the same fate. Moving down a steep decline, Violet Town tanker backed away from the track to allow us to descend, but the driver took the bend at the base of the track a little too quickly and too sharply, throwing a large boulder up under the front of the truck. It was only a matter of minutes after this that the crew leader of the tankers was calling in a breakdown.
The ridge line was an ideal position to watch the helicopter fire bombers. Sometimes they would run the length of the valley below us and other times above. Watching the choppers’ frantic, twisting movements, you had a sense of urgency and danger but in reality we were in no danger. In this country, the use of fire bombers is the most practical way to contain a run of fire and we on the ground in the initial stages of an attack were only there to provide protection and support.
Late in the afternoon we started our decent from the ridge. A small back burn was started at the base of the ridge along the farm track which meandered along the edge of a small water cause. The idea was to clear the long grass that had not been eaten by the cattle, a preventative measure in case the wind changed direction and threatened the safe area provided by a farmer’s shed and its surroundings. While sitting in the truck, the Erickson Air-Crane came over head. We thought he had come for a look but to our astonishment he dropped a load of water that put out our back burn. He did this twice before he realised he was in the wrong spot. This incident brightened our face with a laugh.
With the command vehicle in the lead, we moved back down the road towards Violet Town. The fire had moved out of the hills and was heading across farm paddocks to the Hayes and Boho Roads. We sat watching the fire and waited for it to reach the road.
Dookie tanker notified the strike team leader that they were out of water and the tree that they were dealing with on Hayes Rd needed some more attention as it was throwing plumes of sparks into the air and some were crossing the road into a dry paddock. We notified the strike team leader that we would continue with the work and so finally we used the first drop of our water. With the tree thoroughly washed and cleaned, we had the customary CFA picnic, dining al-fresco on sausages and onions.
A plan was hatched during our brief meal break, to place trucks at intervals along the road and wait for the fire to come down from the ridge to the road. The fire was moving down from a level of 400m above sea level to about 20m at our point along upper Boho Rd. We were sent to a farm house back at the road junction of Boho and Boho Church Rd to help supress a section of fire that was creeping ever so slowly towards the house and its out-buildings.
The ground was rough and steep with long plots of grass surrounding two dams. We managed to edge along the fence line and put out the flame over a 100m section of the fire line. This action allowed time for a bulldozer to make its way to our position and grade a path in front of the fire line giving the house a 4m wide fire break.
We went back down the road to a farm paddock 1km south of the house. The fire was over a small hill and out of sight of the road. The idea was to investigate the potential for the fire to flare up once it reached the peak of the rise.
First gear low ratio and the tanker groaned its way up the little ridge to the top. The fire had no material to burn because the ground was mainly dirt and dust. We had a quick conference with the strike team leader and it was decided the area would pose no threat and the dozer could deal with the situation with a fire break.
We relocated the tanker back at our meal break position, but this time we moved into the paddock to the east of the road. It was the early hours of the morning and all of us were starting to show signs of fatigue. Mossy and I had a sleep in the truck while the others watched the light show on the hill above us. The fire was trickling slowly down the hill only flaring up when reaching a patch of heavy fuel.
I guess at around 3am we had the order to move out and head back to a farm house on Hayes Road where a water point and meal station had been set up. A short rest, a meal and a cup of tea, then we moved on again, this time back to the Violet Town recreation reserve. The remainder of the early morning was taken up with sleeping on the floor in the football club rooms.
The sight and sounds of several men curled up in their own little space on the carpet was quite amusing. It’s a shame no one took a photo. A woman present said, “They’re like little farting and snoring angels.”
6.00am Monday morning, the Australia Day holiday, and the the smell of a cooked breakfast was wafting into the club rooms through the open doors and windows. The ABC News was being broadcast on the radio and according to their report on the Violet Town /Boho fire:
The blaze is 2,000 hectares in size and is moving in a north-easterly direction and crews expect the bushfire to burn out of control for another 24 hours. The Country Fire Authority has stated ground crews were unable to fight the fire during the night because it is burning in inaccessible, hilly terrain, so crews have been forced to rely on water bombing helicopters to attack the blaze. Today ground crews will be supported with earth-moving machinery such as bulldozers on the ground, but they'll also be supported by six firefighting aircraft currently deployed to the fire, including the air crane.
We left that fight to other crews. The only thing on our minds was breakfast and the drive home to a soft bed.