News & Media

From the Wodonga West fireground: GALLERY

Wodonga had “dodged a massive bullet” with firefighters defeating a blaze that had been burning out of control west of the city since Monday 15 December.

Story from December 18 edition of the Border Mail

All photos taken by Mark Slater, captain of the District 24 Headquarters Fire Brigade.

Wodonga West CFA captain Ross Coyle said it was not good fortune but years of planning for the nightmare scenario of a fire that would approach Wodonga from its western side, taking hold and spreading quickly. CFA was ready to put its plan of attack into effect.

When residents awoke to the news the Watch and Act warning had been downgraded, Mr Coyle said it was the efforts of crews who had worked overnight in steep and dark terrain that should be credited for the favourable outcome.

The 187-hectare fire was tucked away in the hills off Plunketts Road, three kilometres from the nearest farming property; but, from the now-blackened landscape, the urban fringe of Wodonga looms large.

It’s the closest a fire has come to the city’s edge since 1952. Modelling from that fire at Cornishtown was used to help the CFA plan for scenarios.

“We’ve known for a long time that any fire that approached ­Wod­onga from the western side would be bad,” Mr Coyle said. “That’s why CFA took it so seriously.

“They just knew it was a must ... while we didn’t want to see the plan come into effect, we’re delighted it’s worked.”

The blaze was sparked by lightning strikes on Monday afternoon and crews fought all day Tuesday to get it under control, battling hot weather and wind gusts up to 95km/h.

CFA’s modelling showed the worst-case scenario would see the fire take hold and spread through Coyles Road and all the way to Parkers and Felltimber Creek roads.

But the efforts of 150 firefighters, 25 trucks and several water bombers meant the fire, although out-of-control, had barely spread beyond its seven kilometre perimeter by lunch time on Tuesday.

But, as Mr Coyle stressed, it wasn’t easy for crews who had worked overnight in steep, dark terrain, with breakaway fires sparking on Tuesday night.

“There was a period we were sure it was going to make a march on Wodonga,” he said. “That first night, it was burning down all the hills and we just knew if it reached the bottom and makes a run at the next one, we’re gone. If we didn’t hold this back, Wodonga’s residential area would have been hit.

“It’s not good luck, it’s good work. Luck often has a bit to do with it, but this time luck was definitely against us.”

“Goin’ all right?” asked the firefighter, his face smudged in ash and brow beaded in sweat.

“Like a well-oiled machine,” grinned back Ross Coyle, his own face not much better.

They make it sound easy, these CFA firefighters; deceptively so — but you only need to look at the hills rising in the background, the rocky outcrops and charred ground to know it’s anything but.

They’ll tell you what it’s like up there, about the steepness of those hills, the rocks slipping under their feet, how boulders are dislodging, or the sheer beating down.

They’ll tell you that, in the same tone of voice as when they describe what they had for breakfast.

It’s just a job that needs to be done and to them, their efforts are no cause for fanfare.

“If we don’t do it, who’s going to?” said Reino Brunnenmeyer, a 40-year veteran of the Wooragee CFA.

 “You just go in and do it. If I lived out here, I’d like to know there are people who would look after me,” he said.

Mr Brunnenmeyer was fighting fires near Wangaratta on Tuesday before coming to help with the clean-up in Wodonga yesterday.

His Wooragee CFA mate, John Weber, was back again yesterday after working on the Plunketts Road fire from 7am to 7pm on Tuesday.

It was, he said, “extremely difficult going” but his captain “had no hesitation in sending us — you go where you’re needed”.

They’re down at the staging area set up at the gun range on Klings Road, where crews can kick back, have a feed, and relax in some longed-for shade.

“Right, I need two tankers now, I don’t care who they are,” barked someone suddenly.

There’s a split-second glance among colleagues before sandwiches and drink bottles are put down and a dozen blokes jump up, no questions asked.

Staging manager Wally Prior, an Eskdale brigade member, knows from years of experience just how much “hard yakka all round” it takes.

“Dragging the hoses up and down those hills, it’s hard work ... it also plays around on your mind,” he said, tapping his temple.

But it’s the view that keeps them going. Wodonga West captain Ross Coyle said up there, all you can see is the urban fringe, where thousands of people are going about their business, perhaps oblivious to the battle in the background.

“That’s what drives these guys,” Mr Coyle said. “They’re predominantly volunteers — they have jobs, families to look after and they give up their time to do what needs to be done.”

Last Updated: 23 December 2014