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Scotsburn - When practice makes perfect
When the crew of four on Smythesdale Tanker 2 was driving to the Scotsburn fire on Saturday afternoon, they knew it wasn’t like the other jobs they’d been chasing that day.
“We were sent to Pryors Road where resources were stretched,” said crew leader Wayne Bourke (who admits he felt very protective of houses along a road where some of his students from secondary college live).
“About 20 kilometres out from the fire we saw the plume of smoke. We talked about how this was a big one and how we were going to act. We laid the ground rules on the way: if anyone was uncomfortable they just needed to say so and we’d be out of there. We talked about how we’d operate the pumps and very clearly established our roles. If anyone was away from the truck, someone else would step up to their position without being told, and we would have line of sight on each other at all times. I said, ‘Let’s make sure the bolt cutters are sitting right in front of us’ and we all looked for escape routes along the way.
“We also said, ‘Let’s be aware of our entrapment procedures’.
“It’s all situational awareness and it’s become part of our nature: go out together; come back together. Whether we’re going to a bin fire or an MVA, we talk on the way about what we’ll do if something goes wrong and we establish our water minimum and always make sure we have more.”
The crew doorknocked to check on residents and ask about their fire plans. They held horses being loaded into a float and helped another resident hitch a horse trailer: they were helpful and respectful.
Back along Pryors Road, driver Lachie O’Brien said, “Something’s wrong”.
“The fire had been moving well away from us with no smoke,” continued Wayne, “but here was flame where we didn’t expect it. We became uneasy: again, it was situational awareness. There’d been no indication of a wind change and then a few leaves came our way. It all changed so dramatically and fire raced along the road. It went from nothing to like starting up a blow torch. We’d identified a green paddock further back and drove there. Visibility dropped to arm’s length and we came under strong ember attack.”
The four deployed their crew protection system, turning on the sprays with a full 3000-litres of defence. Lachie called “Mayday” while Wayne notified the strike team leader of their location and the conditions and declared the four on board “all well”. For five to seven minutes they kept talking: “How was everyone; how was everyone,” until conditions eased somewhat and they emerged from behind their drop-down heat shields.
No one was injured.
“It was very unusual fire behaviour ,” said Wayne. “The ferocity and the unpredictable changes of fire direction.”
But it was straight back to work for the crew. They drove to a nearby house with all its alarms ringing, established that no one was home and left a note to let the residents know Smythesdale had attended and no embers were found. They also fed and watered a nearby Shetland pony and put water around a tractor.
They continued their welfare checks, did some blacking out, got treated well at McDonald’s and were home by midnight.
“I’m pretty proud of the crew,” said Wayne. “Our newest crew member said, ‘See, training does pay off’ and it’s something we’re really strict about at Smythesdale. We have three tankers and every member who’s going to be operational has to complete Safety and Survival on each tanker. We’ve done that for three years now as part of our focus on our core members and their training.
“As our captain says, ‘If anything goes wrong it’s going to come back to our training records’.” (In fact, Smythesdale Captain Alwyn Parker proudly describes all his members as “switched on”.)
“We do a lot of mentoring and offer opportunities to lead to our newer members at training so no one is put in a situation they can’t handle,” continued Wayne.
“We have faith in everybody.
“We’ve done a follow-up with each other since Saturday but it’s been low key. We contacted peer support and they’ve done their job. We talk about peer support at meetings and this was just putting our words into action.”
Des Phelan has been the Grenville group officer for 36 years so he’s not easily alarmed by fire conditions. On Saturday afternoon he headed out in his Landcruiser as support, following up reports from fire trucks and also checking on the welfare of residents.
“I cut trees up and got access to seven of the burnt houses. We’d heard that a man was thought to be at one of those properties and found that he’d taken shelter in his wine cellar.
“I said, ‘Do you live here?’ and he said, ‘I used to’.
“Every fire there are things that don’t go so well but a lot goes right because of the human element.”
Photo (L-R): Smythesdale Tanker 2 crew Simon Turner, Lachie O'Brien and Wayne Bourke.