News & Media

Paddle steamer up in smoke

It's not a call you want to get at 5.05am when over half the brigade are away at the State Championships.

Structure fire: paddle steamer fire, Port of Echuca.

The first unit on scene by the Murray River gave a word back of not yet under control and it was obvious from members responding that the paddle steamer Henry Charles was well ablaze.

Story by Ashley McGraw

The Echuca Pumper arrived on scene and immediately called for a second pumper to be dispatched, as previous experience in this part of Echuca is that the lack of a constant water supply may hinder the firefight.

A control point was established by Incident Controller Col Munro. Echuca Tanker and Support arrived on scene shortly after and access to the secured area was the first of many obstacles.  The Shire had recently finished an upgrade to the area including the walkways, a new information centre, and increased security, costing several million dollars. The fire was directly behind this new building and the initial attack was from the walkway, some 10-12 metres above and 15 metres back from the paddle steamer.

The paddle steamer was fully involved and the flames had ignited a tree further up the bank, threatening the walkway. One first attack crew was directed to extinguish the tree and provide asset protection to the walkway. The second attack crew began the firefight on the paddle steamer, and was joined shortly after by the first crew which had finished asset protection.

Incident control was then handed to Ash McGraw, and a call from the pump operator alerted us that there may be someone on board the boat.  Rostered Duty Officer John Cutting then arrived on scene and had just spoken to the person sleeping on the boat who was safe and well.

While waiting for the Echuca Moama Search and Rescue to arrive, one industrious member was given permission to launch his boat to provide an observation platform from the water side. This provided valuable information on the location and type of fuel burning.

By this stage, some members had found a safe path down the steep bank to the river’s edge and made their way back to the incident scene.  A branch and extended line was lowered to them and a closer fire attack on the paddle steamer began with good results.

With a metal hull and both its securing lines burnt, the paddle steamer was still floating but beginning to drift away from the bank. The last thing we needed was a burning paddle steamer floating down the river towards other craft, so a temporary line was connected to the paddle steamer to secure it.

The tree that threatened the walkway kept reigniting and being extinguished, and was in danger of falling down the bank and across the boat. An exclusion area was established with Moama Urban given responsibility to keep the tree under control.

Echuca Moama Search and Rescue arrived on scene with two flat bottom punts which provided a stable platform for firefighting operations from the water side. A small pump with a short hose and branch was quickly loaded and the attack from the water immediately helped.

By this stage, the decking across the boat and around the edge had either been consumed by fire or severely damaged and the boat was too dangerous to access. The firefight had to continue from the walkway, the river’s edge and the water side.

The fire was approximately 90 per cent extinguished except for two hotspots. On closer inspection, these were identified as places where wood was stored for the boat’s steam engine. These were protected from above by fallen metal, but the attack from the water eventually extinguished them – a great team effort by all involved.

The tree had been bought under control except for one branch that continued to smolder. The shire arborist attended and removed the smoldering branch, but the tree was still in a precarious state and needed to be bought down for safety. Discussions between the relevant services on how to actually do that continued as fire services packed up.

The scene was handed to Moama Urban, and we returned to the station for the inevitable clean up, re-stowing of vehicles, some breakfast and a quick after-action review.

The NSW/Victorian border has been set at the high water mark on the Victorian side. Over the years this has created problems for all agencies and interpretations have abounded. The simplest way to remember it is if it’s wet it’s NSW.

This paddle steamer, tied to the Victorian side of the Murray River below the high water mark, was deemed to be in NSW. The walkway is built above the high water mark and therefore deemed to be Victorian. 

So, the fire happened in NSW but Victorian services had to fight it from Victoria, while NSW services including Fire and Rescue, Maritime and Police had to travel to Victoria to take charge of the incident and conduct the necessary investigations.

Support units: Moama (NSW) Urban Pumper, Echuca Moama Search and Rescue

Last Updated: 13 March 2015