News & Media

The sting in the tail

By: Duncan Russell

Category: Incidents - Bushfire

  2.36 PM 27 May, 2013

Location: District 7 News

Views: 3540

Windy, warm conditions late in the fire season quickly turned a small scrub fire at Ferrers Road, Dereel, into a 1,200-hectare blaze that destroyed 16 houses and 15 outbuildings.

This is the account of the fire on 27 March, through the eyes of Dereel Captain Darryn Hill.

At 11.35am Dereel brigade received an alert page for a tree fire that was spreading. I read the message and immediately started to look for smoke and see what the wind was doing given the location and types of fuel in the area. I knew we already had a fire in Linton and a fire near Derrinallum. Our Tanker 1 was at Linton so its response time was delayed as it had a fair way to travel.

I called VicFire to tell them smoke was visible about 500 metres down Ferrers Rd so that District HQ could start its preparation.

Within minutes, around a hectare of dense scrub was burning, houses were under threat and Birddog 373 was called in for aerial. Twenty minutes after the first page alert, the call was made for 50 tankers.  

We knew we had to do everything possible to stop the fire from leaving the boundaries of Dereel and ensure nearby towns weren’t threatened. Community Warnings were issued to Dereel and surrounding townships and we sectorised the fire to help us manage our attack.

At this point the group command structure was implemented to initiate a Level 3 incident because of the size and logistics demand of the fire. I stepped down as incident controller and handed control to our Deputy Group Officer Dave Stephens who was a qualified Level 3 controller. I took on a role of sector commander and strike team leader, and my group officer drove the Leigh Group car so we could see where all the trucks were and work out our plans.

The wind kept changing the direction of fire flanks and it made it quite difficult to contain the fire even in small sections. When we knew we’d been beaten by the fire, we moved forward and kept trying and trying. The fire moved so quickly that our attack plans had to change often, which made it very hard to put them into action.

Some of my trucks, which were still patrolling the initial area of our sector, advised that the fire was spotting over the valley into an area where it would spread quickly up the hill directly to where we were and several properties. All of a sudden the road in front of us started to disappear in smoke. Very quickly we couldn’t see anything. I knew from previous experience that it was about to go bad.

I jumped on the radio and yelled to all my crews, “Safety, Safety. All Crews get prepared”.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” I said on the radio. There were crews trying to protect houses and were away from their trucks and we had flames all around us.

Everything had got to its ignition point and went up. There were many Mayday calls at this time. Due to the thickness of the smoke we didn’t know the status of the crews or where they were. Then within a minute the smoke and flames cleared like nothing had happened and there were black, burning trees all around.

Group Officer Ross Wilson and I wanted to reassess our plans and decided it was time to move our sector again to the far eastern side of the forest and out into the paddocks where we would have a much better chance of getting on top of spot fires and any potential spreading. Using my knowledge of the area, I led the strike team down a fire access track, knowing we had some time up our sleeves because the fire had to go down a valley before it got to us.

My trucks stayed at the top of the hill in open paddocks along the roadside to do asset protection, while we went to investigate possible access points into paddocks.

We ran into a District 7 strike team that stayed with us to help.

I couldn’t believe it when I got a report that the fire had spotted over Wurrook Road, about two kilometres ahead of the fire. I wondered how it could have spotted so far when it’s burning in grass. We have volcanic rock in the area so we needed to be careful not to damage the vehicles. A couple of the trucks from the District 7 strike team put out the spot fire while Ross and I drove to our other crews to check on the status of the fire.

Within minutes the fire had picked up momentum again and seemed to be going just as quickly down the hills as it did going up them. We knew with the speed it was travelling that we had a way to slow or even stop the fire in its tracks − a harvested lucerne paddock that was mainly dirt.  

The ten-metre high fire came quickly down the hill and through the paddock until it hit the lucerne. It was like it hit a brick wall. To help with the firefight, helicopters dropped water on to the flames. “I think we’re gonna get this,” Ross said. With the success on this front we left the paddocks and went to the eastern flank.

Then we heard on the radio that a very strong wind change had hit Mount Gellibrand and would hit us at any time. Ross and I drove up to meet District 14 strike teams and graders. This was a big turning point and we got the upper hand. The graders built control lines in the paddocks ready for the wind change, while all trucks were putting out the edges of the fire.

Welcome rain in the evening helped us get the fire under control, but there was still a lot of work to ensure the fire stayed within containment lines.

The fire was physically and mentally demanding for my brigade members and I commend them for their efforts. Also fighting the fire were CFA brigades who travelled long distances, Department of Environment and Primary Industries and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

It was great to see so many people get together and offer assistance. With fires and incidents like this there is always someone who gets forgotten for their efforts. I apologise if this is the case and would like you to please contact Dereel Fire Brigade to advise us of such.

Dereel community members have been through a big event that will forever be in their memories, especially those unfortunate families who lost their homes and property.

Our thoughts also went out to the firefighters who were injured and are very glad they made a speedy recovery.

The fire affected area is still in recovery mode in many ways and will be for quite some time. We are working with Parks Victoria to ensure the Bushland Reserves are reinstated to their previous states. We have members of the community and other organisations coming in to assist with fencing and removing hazards.

We had the Toyota 4WD Club who camped on our recreation reserve for a couple of days who also offered assistance to the community. All assistance has not gone without notice.

We would like to thank all those businesses, families and individuals who have made generous donations to the community, our brigade and the Dereel Bushfire Appeal.

Last Updated: 29 May 2013