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Group Officer on Goongerah fires
Andy Bennett is a longtime Goongerah resident and was the captain of Goongerah Fire Brigade for its first ten years.
He is now the Mt Delegate group officer working alongside one deputy group officer who doubles as the New South Wales Rural Fire Service captain of Delegate, and another who is captain of a cross-border forestry industry brigade. Andy estimates that their group area comprising private, public, Parks Victoria and plantation land is bigger than the Australian Capital Territory.
Clusters of fires have been burning in this area of great beauty, deep forest, tall trees and limited tracks since lightning strikes went through on Wednesday January 15 and Thursday 16. Heck, they were powerful enough to blow Andy’s CFA fax machine!
“Laurie Reed is the captain of Bonang,” says Andy, “and he’s fourth generation in this area. He said it was the most intense lightning storm he’d ever seen.
“We had no rain between mid-December and mid-January. It had been damp enough before that but one month was enough to crisp off the bush. The lightning on Thursday came with 12 mls of rain but the dryness and the fuel load overrode that. That night four or five of us Goongerah members did an all-nighter, patrolling. By Friday there were seven known fires. The only direction we could look and not see smoke columns was the northeast.
“DEPI [Department of Environment and Primary Industries] crews attended on Friday but they were pulled out because the fire activity was too intense. It was spotting around and behind them. They were tasked with asset protection around Goongerah – private properties, the primary school, the hall, the CFA shed.
“By Saturday aerial reconnaissance told us that there were now 10 fires burning all within coo-ee of Goongerah.
“DEPI stayed on asset protection until the 25th when we were lucky to get about 21 mls of rain. They built tracks around houses. They’d been working with high fuel loads all that time but in benign conditions. Backburning was incredibly tricky. They built an eastern containment line behind the school which is about four kilometres long and it took them three days because of how slowly they had to move and the precautions they took. It was painstaking and they did a great job. We have a very good relationship with them.
“Aircraft are operating out of Marlo and the Delegate airstrip. There have been about five bombers in all working it. There have been a fixed wing and at least three choppers getting water from a dam about 150 metres from my house. The noise is phenomenal. It’s like Apocalypse Now revisited!
“We’ve had CFA strike teams with trucks from Paynesville through to Mallacoota. The Orbost group has come. There are lots of dozers, excavators and mulchers out there. We’ve got crews from interstate and New Zealand and the Kiwis are adding a touch of colour to radio communications!
“The outside assistance has been great and invaluable.”
There is no mobile phone coverage in Goongerah. Watch-and-acts and an emergency evacuation warning were received on landlines and the population of 60 people dwindled down to about 11 people on two occasions. The school is yet to open this academic year and is likely to remain closed at least all next week.
The Mt Jersey fire is on the northern boundary of Andy’s property “knocking on my door” – starting about 4.5 kilometres northwest of his home and moving to the northeast. The Ellery Creek fire is on a private property boundary and Club Terrace is also nearby.
So what of the fire history of Goongerah? “There is none,” exclaims Andy. “There haven’t been any significant fires since 1952. The story I heard was told with a fair bit of poetic license. They say that the ’52 fire started at Campbells Knob at 10am; reached Goongerah at lunchtime and was at the coast by 3pm. I can’t vouch for the truth of that.
“Like 2003, the weather is going to stop these fires. It’s four inches of rain or Bass Strait. We can’t put them out. They’re too big. The Deddick Trail is burning in the Snowy Park and there are no tracks. We’ve got a lot of fallback lines well back from the fires. The wet gully rainforest system on the western side of Joys Creek fire should hold that flank.
“It’s a waiting game but not sit-and-wait. There’s a lot of activity, a lot of preparation and construction of fallback lines.
“This little fire has generated significant interest around here. It’s been a good education all round. People have left their politics at home and worked towards a common goal. They’ve seen each other in a different light, all doing the long hours for the same reason.
“I have a strong ownership of this brigade and it can be a challenge to get people interested when we have an average of two turnouts a year … and that’s a busy year. We’ve got some new members out of this and some older members have reactivated. Members have stepped up. I can think of one woman in particular who has shown amazing leadership and made some excellent judgment calls. She’d better look out for a promotion at the next brigade election.”
In a township of about 60 people, Goongerah brigade previously had about 30 members with half of them women. The majority of members have been between 20 and 40 years of age.
“A lot of good work has been done by a lot of good people,” says Andy. “Again, outside help has been invaluable.
“And we’re getting a ___ good firebreak.”