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Reflecting on South Australian deployment
Victoria committed numerous strike teams, specialists in areas ranging from aircraft deployment to impact assessment and liaison officers to early January’s South Australian fires, totalling about 240 personnel.
Hillcrest Fire Brigade Captain Fiona Burns has been deployed interstate several times before and was also a member of the Australian contingent responding to recent fires in British Columbia. This time she was a strike team leader based in Gumeracha with 19 members from District 13 crewing District 4 trucks.
“We were deployed on night shifts ahead of an extreme-risk day approaching on the Wednesday,” said Fiona. “Fortunately that day ended up very hot but without the predicted strong winds and there were no new fire starts.
“Our tasks were to provide relief to the South Australian crews, consolidate control lines, extinguish hotspots and assess hazardous trees. There were pockets of unburnt fuel and the night winds caused some extreme fire behaviour – things would be stirred up at 11pm.
“We know that the locals have days and weeks ahead attending to every tree and stick on fire so it was important to give them a break. The fires would have been truly frightening on the way through and we saw some incredible saves.
“We’d spend the first hour of our shift with home owners because we were geographically challenged, then try to get them to sleep.”
CFA crews extinguished trees if it was safe to do so, but many were too dangerous to be felled by hand. Members mapped the trees using GPS reference points overnight, with a Port Phillip DELWP felling the trees on the following day shifts. Perhaps they could be described as ‘shifts that passed in the night’.
“It was a tough gig,” continued Fiona. “We were sleeping out in tents during really hot days. My hat’s off to the locals. A local lady turned up and asked if we needed anything so she and her friends drove 19 of us and our gear to the CFS training college to sleep inside on the final day. It was heaven!
“All of us were overwhelmed by the response of locals and meeting and greeting them was a highlight. It was really common to see entire families involved in looking after us with adults cooking and their children making up our ration packs. We saw the family community spirit and some of those conversations were really touching.”
Freshwater Creek Captain Adam Steel was a crew leader in the first District 7 strike team who drove across in their own trucks. They were based in One Tree Hill after the major fire had gone through and also experienced the unpredictable gully winds.
“It was unsettling,” said Adam. “We were blacking out in up-and-down country and all of a sudden the wind and temperature would change. You don’t work upwind of dangerous trees but someone 50 metres away might be working in completely different conditions to you so, safety wise, that was challenging.
“Burnt out tree stumps and roots were also a safety hazard – the ground can just give way under you.
“On the second night we conducted welfare checks on people in badly-affected areas. Everybody seemed to have running water and the electricity had come back on. They were very thankful but it also got emotional. We were talking to some people who had lost their livelihoods."
Once it got too late to doorknock, Strike Team 0720 blacked out around the main water reservoir servicing Adelaide – a meaningful job alongside one local crew relieved to have energetic back up.
Adam and Fiona both use the same word to describe their mission in South Australia: “repay”.
“South Australia came here in 2009 so this was our chance to repay their generosity,” said Fiona. “A community was in need and we were happy to help.”
Many thanks to Frank Beukelman for most of the photos.