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Serra Group Officer Armytage talks risk
In mid-October “it’s as wet as it’s ever been” across the Serra Group area in District 5, according to Group Officer Simon Armytage.
By Leith Hillard
“We’re a 26-inch area but we’re up to 31 inches so far this year although no flooding to speak of.
“Last year the fire season went from October to April but this year it’s more likely to be January to April. We can’t do our pre-season exercise because you couldn’t drive a truck off the bitumen – you’d be stuck for a week.
“We burn off about 60 kilometres of our roadsides but we won’t even look at that until January. It’s a clean-up but it’s also training. We rotate our young people through the roles and they get to see what smoke and radiant heat can do.”
The four brigades of Serra Group lie at the southern tip of the Grampians. The majority of members are farmers with many moving from canola back to livestock where the good money is.
Simon has been group officer since 1992. He was Dunkeld brigade captain in the 1980s and calls himself “old school” following his father’s footsteps into the brigade.
The major fires in the area were in 1977, 1982, 2006 and 2013 in Mirranatwa.
“Our small grassfires often start at about 1pm and if they’re not out by 8pm we’re in trouble.
“In 2006 I was divisional commander. We had strike teams come in and my policy was to put a local into the strike team leader’s car – someone who’d know where the dams and creeks were. I wouldn’t let them do anything without a local present. I’ve got four or five blokes who aren’t interested in going out on the fire truck who’ll do that if anything crops up now.
The 2013 fire was from a lightning strike and took about a week to round up.
“I can’t emphasise too much how important local knowledge is. It saves so much heartache and waste of time. I know who owns every property; I know most of their UHF numbers; I know where the broken bridges are.”
So, how does a fire tend to run in the Serra Group area?
“There’s always going to be a south westerly change,” said Simon, “and it’s always going to blow harder than it does from the north. We very rarely get a fire on a south westerly and the wind always seems to drop on nightfall. We always put most of the appliances on the eastern side of the fire and that’s the side we put out first. It’s just second nature.”
Simon goes to every fire in his group area because that’s where he believes he’s most effective.
“I can’t handle the Div Comm,” he said. “I direct from the fireground and sectorise the fire as fast as possible, keeping some trucks back on the flank. Firefighers love to get to the front of the fire but you have to keep appliances back because it always flares up again. You need to keep them spread out.
One factor making a huge difference to local fire response now is the pre-determined dispatch of the two 802 air tractors from Hamilton airbase simultaneous with brigades being paged.
“This will be our third season,” continued Simon, “and it’s been absolutely brilliant.”
Something else making a difference has been the purchase by six local members of ex-CFA trucks from Mannheim Auctions.
“You can get a 25-year-old Isuzu with everything for $15,000,” said Simon. “They even come with a full tank of water! They’ve lived in a good shed all their lives and we all know how well they’ve been looked after by the DMOs.
“They’ll quicken our response times.”
But a piece of advice, Armytage-style: “You can ask a volunteer if they would please do something but don’t ever tell a volunteer what to do.”