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Private units blitzing it
Private firefighting units are just a regular part of the conversation in brigades in broadacre farming areas of Victoria.
Consider the Grampians Group area: 170,000 hectares of open farmland with tourism on the fringes and just four brigades with some satellite stations. While those stations are far apart, gaps are filled in by sheds on private land housing private firefighting units ready to go.
“We’re solid farming brigades and initial attack is often in private units,” Group Officer Robert Kelm told Brigade magazine in 2015. “I’d say 99 per cent are driven by our brigade members and they’re all stickered up to get through traffic management points.
“It’s self-preservation. A fire in the Grampians can take us out for weeks.”
Brimpaen is in Grampians Group and member Ivan Smith fought the 1957 fire which burnt more than 20,000 hectares.
“We tried to burn back but it spotted over us,” said Ivan. “We drove about half a mile to the dam and got out the pump but next thing there’s a fire at the dam and on the other side of the dam. We couldn’t do anything with it. We burnt back along the highway but again it spotted over us. Private units came out of the woodwork. If it wasn’t for private units and their local knowledge, we’d have lost houses.”
Strangely, Captain Daryl Fox from District 18’s Goschen brigade uses the same term and, 59 years later, “private units came out of the woodwork, literally dozens of them” to help knock down the late-2016 Parsons Road and Ultima fires.
“Both those fires came up to our brigade border and were ferocious with huge potential,” said Daryl. “Parsons Road was burning with the northeast wind behind it and a southwest change was threatening but we caught it in the pea stubble.
“We picked up Ultima in the lentil stubble but you can’t put that out with water. Seven tractors with disc ploughs attended and they tipped dirt over the smouldering straw to smother it. When we get a fire, we get a disc or two on the road right away now.
“At Parsons Road we had two front-end loaders to clean up sticks and trees. They were invaluable, but you’re asking someone to do it for nothing and it can be risky for the machinery.”
DELWP was also in attendance alongside numerous farmers each with between 1000 and 1500 litres of water in utes or on trailers with firefighting pumps, and everyone went to Channel 18 on UHF radios.
“Most of the farmers are members,” continued Daryl, “and they’re raring to go, do their bit and then they’re gone.”
Further west near the South Australian border, private units are a vital local resource that mesh in seamlessly with brigades. They quickly appear where assets are, do their job and disappear again. A combination of established relationships, experienced operators and quality equipment means this flooding of resources helps prevent little fires turning into big fires.
“Our people are switched on and we have to be self-sufficient,” said Murrayville and Border Group Officer Trevor ‘Blue’ Wyatt. “We’ve educated everyone to operate under the brigade and the group. A lot of the private units are driven by our members with pagers and they log in through UHF back to the LCF [local command facility]. The brigade paid for some of those UHF radios. We also used to give them $100 towards heat shielding but now they do it themselves.”
Some of the private units carry up to 6000 litres while four ex-milk tankers carrying about 12,000 litres each and hooked to semi-prime movers are, by good fortune, housed in the group’s north, south, east and west.
In an area where members might live 60 kilometres from the fire station, a private unit is also transport to the fireground. Often first on scene, they can provide vital early intelligence to CFA trucks still enroute.
Trevor runs all fires from the fireground in the group FCV. He communicates only with the deputy group officers and lieutenants and usually assigns five private units to each of them. He estimates there are about 30 private units across the group area.
“As soon as our fire trucks reach the firefront,” continued Trevor, “four or five private units pull in straight behind, all moving at about 40 kilometres an hour. The first two will have their hoses going then they’ll pull off and get water while the ones behind step up. Fog nozzles waste too much water so we insist on straight jet.”
What sounds like highly-disciplined vehicle ballet is described by Rutherglen Group Officer Andrew Russell as “almost like poetry” as it operates in District 24.
“We have a lot of commonsense landholders,” he said, “and their role in private units is generally to attend to flare-ups once our brigade tankers have knocked down the main fire.”
As the December 2015 Barnawartha fire moved up the Indigo Valley in the Rutherglen Group area, members turned out in their private units to black out behind fire trucks. About 40 of them backed up then-Captain Frank Harbottle from Springhurst brigade at what he described at the time as “the most dynamic fire I’ve ever been to”. The fire was estimated at 6732 hectares with a 180-kilometre boundary.
District 24 Operations Manager Paul King also praised private units as “a valuable part of the firefighting arsenal.
“Of course people who protect their property from the impact of fire must be suitably dressed to survive the passage of fire and the impact of radiant heat,” he said. “The highest priority is saving responders’ lives, so private units must link up to DELWP and CFA so they have access to critical safety messages.”
Down in District 6, the majority of private units in the Lismore and District Group are ex-CFA fire trucks. The Austins, Bedfords, Isuzus and Hinos are mostly owned by cereal-crop-farming brigade members so they have both fire and farming know-how, can-do. The cropping brigade Mingay alone has more than 10 private units.
“They turn out without being called and often get to the fire first and jump on it quicker,” said Group Officer Col Pickering. “They’re in direct contact with our tankers via UHF and they’re usually tasked to tag along behind them and mop up. They stop outbreaks and put edges out on an adrenaline rush, and nine times out of 10 they save the day. They follow the protocols and do their thing without hindering anyone.”
CFA has updated the publication Guidelines for Operating Private Equipment at Fires which is available online and in hard copy. The major changes relate to incident management terminology; and new JSOPs, procedures and policies around issues such as traffic management points.
What hasn’t changed is the attention everyone with a private unit must pay to its reliability. The guidelines can assist you as you get your unit raring to go before summer arrives.
Turn to 4.4 in the guidelines ‘Is your vehicle ready?’ and work through the checklist covering vehicle weight and roadworthiness; a properly secured load; mechanically-sound and regularly-serviced pumps; first-aid kits and woollen blankets; an amber rotating beacon; and UHF radios and heatshields.
If you answer ‘no’ to any questions in the checklist, your private unit is not ready for service.
Above all, safety first, safety always.
Many thanks to Keith Packenham and Sally Patterson for the photos.