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Twentieth anniversary of Dandenong Ranges fire
Today marks 20 years since fierce flames destroyed 41 homes, killed three people and ripped through more than 400 hectares of bushland covering much of the Dandenong Ranges.
For three days from 19 to 21 January, 1997, hundreds of CFA firefighters travelled in fire trucks from across Victoria, fire-fighting air craft converged to help fight the deliberately-lit fires that wreaked so much havoc in the area.
CFA’s District 13 Operations Manager Dave Renkin grew up in the tight-knit community of Upwey, having joined CFA’s Upwey Fire Brigade as a junior volunteer in 1981, and simply couldn’t sit back and do nothing while his childhood Township was under threat.
Dave had already spent hours at a large fire in Mount Martha the day before (20 January, 1997), as a firefighter based at Dandenong Fire Station.
“I’d come back from Mount Martha to my place in Scoresby, and I was due to start a night shift at Dandenong that night,” he said.
“I could see smoke on the hills and I just had to help any way I could. I headed to Upwey Fire Station and was put to work as a Strike Team Liaison Officer for the MFB’s Strike Team.
“I was able to provide them with local knowledge of fire behaviour, having volunteered with CFA in the area.
“I eventually had to leave for my night shift, but ended up part of a Region 8 Strike Team sent back to Sassafras and Ferny Creek to protect assets in areas including Seabreeze Avenue where three people lost their lives. It was an incredibly big day.”
A major challenge for firefighters was losing water pressure and access to water supplies on the worst day, 21 January, which contributed to the loss of so many homes.
“Crews struggled to get water and had to watch as homes burned down,” Dave said.
He remembers seeing friends from his childhood neighbourhood standing on the roadside in despair.
“There was nothing I could say or do – I felt pretty helpless,” he said.
CFA and communities learnt many lessons from that horrific event, which led to a number of improvements.
Dave highlights the installation of community sirens linked to CFA alerting systems, increased firefighting aircraft support and enhanced training programs as key improvements and changes made following the 1997 fires.
“We’ve come a long way since then, with significant improvements to firefighter training, dramatically improved communications processes keeping agencies better informed and faster implementation of resources including putting Strike Teams to work more rapidly to attack fires more efficiently,” he said.