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Never too late for first callout
Retired school teacher Peter Symons joined the Porcupine Ridge CFA aged 62 and attended his first CFA job on New Years Eve – a large grass and scrub fire at Yandoit that quickly replaced plans to attend a party with his wife. He recounts his first-time experience here.
Story by Peter Symons
I'd finished my basic fire fighting training two weeks before Christmas and was ready to roll – despite the fact that I'd never been to a fire other than ones I'd lit in the yard. Then, on the afternoon before New Year’s Eve, my pager went off - indicating that the Porcupine Ridge CFA tanker was required immediately at Yandoit, about 10klms away as crows fly.
I'd had been advised to keep my fire gear bag in the car and ready, so with a 'good luck' from wife Dawn I’m out the door and second to reach the CFA shed.
Get your gear on now! In three minutes there are five of us and we are off in our tanker.
I'm with four of the most experienced men in our brigade, in the open back of the tanker with seat belts, and being jolted all over the place as we tear down Leslie's Gravel Road behind Mt Franklin. I'm still getting boots tied up, goggles and smoke mask in place. I had a million questions to ask, but no time.
Near Yandoit we can see masses of white smoke billowing. On the radio in the cab of the tanker, talking through the plan of attack, are Captain John Roberts and thirty-year national award- winning veteran Jody Russell.
Enter a gate, and drive up to and along the flank. I'm very nervous even though I know what my job is. So just do it.
It's a rough ride on the back as we burst through an old fence and continue up the flank, the smoke is really thick and my mask is caught up in my goggles, glasses and hearing aids. What the #%*% do I need my hearing aids out here for? Aids into pocket, glasses into pocket.
We’d started the pump back at the shed and now all three of us on the back of the tanker have hoses; branches pouring water on the fire as we move up the flank.
There are three other tankers doing the same. Eventually the total at the incident would be 38 tankers and two helicopter water droppers, plus an observation helicopter monitoring the fire and giving directions to the controller and group leaders.
Although the smoke is so thick at times I can't see the flames about five metres away, I’m now feeling in better shape. A burnt tree crashes down beside the truck - but there's no panic, no yelling.
Our water alarm starts as we get low in water, meaning we’re out of there for a refill. The first opportunity to draught water is at a nearby dam using branches from our tanker and pump. The boys assume I know what to do (and I'm okay at this).
When we get back to the fire I can't believe how far it's progressed; it’s much bigger and heading for the bush. We now get to putting grass fires out around a house. I'm drenched with sweat. A woman blows us a kiss as we get the final fires out near her house. Her five horses are okay.
Eventually the aerial water drops take the sting out of the fire head and it looks like we are starting to get on top of things. There are several slight wind changes – we're well aware of the danger that these will force the flank to quickly become the head, but we're in luck as one wind change brings the fire back on itself and helps us to get control.
We are then sent to black out trees, posts, leaves smouldering in spouts. This is a dirty job and we are now off the truck and working with rakes and extended branches.
Finally we are told to go to Franklinford fire shed for food, water and energy drinks. There are about one hundred plus CFA there, all dirty faced with clothes blackened. The Salvos have set up a BBQ salad bar and soft drinks. A big truck, come up from Ballarat, is ready with everything.
The Fire Controller thanks us for the speed in which we all got to the fire; he’s impressed with the way we made inroads immediately. Potentially it could have been a lot worse, he says. Back to the Porcupine Ridge shed and I thank the guys for looking after me. I've done alright by them and that’s good enough for me.
Drive home, it's 9.30pm. I'm stuffed, nervous energy has drained me, but I think I'll manage better next time. Beer, shower and the fact that it’s New Year’s Eve doesn’t stop me being in bed before midnight. We were supposed to go to a party in Daylesford.
One of the brigade boys, Rob Hands, who was involved in water delivery, had rung our home during the fire, this time speaking to my wife Dawn to tell her that I was okay, and the Captain, John Roberts, also rings the next day to see how I am. Nice people up here.
It’s hard to really describe my emotional journey over those six hours, but those few moments of fear that I had were overcome by having that fire nozzle bursting a shower of water in front of me and the other two guys, John Watts and DIeter, on the back of the truck doing the same.
It's now April and I have been to four fires. Our little brigade has been to about eight fires in total in three months. They are great bunch of men and women.
The training program by John Tipping at Ballarat had been excellent. But it's hard to prepare for that sick feeling you get as you drive straight towards the flank of a big fire.