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Went in green, came out "very black indeed"
Ash Wednesday, 1983. Noel Nealon had just cycled 39 kilometres into the CBD when his pager went off, calling him out to a massive blaze tearing through Belgrave South. It was his very first fire.
*In the lead-up to National Volunteer Week 2016, CFA is telling the stories of members like Noel who dedicate hours to helping the community.*
Noel, who had been visiting his aunt in hospital, got straight back on his bike. His aunt’s place was under threat, and he was determined to be there.
Then 20 years old, the newly-joined Upwey Fire Brigade member was a mad keen cyclist to say the least. Back then Cycling was his only form of transport, and on that particular day it would be the one thing that helped him get through gridlocked traffic and on to the fireground.
First, however, he had to cover the 39 kilometres back to Belgrave South.
“I was extremely fit back then,” said Noel, “in fact the week before I had cycled all the way back from Adelaide.”
“I was sitting by my aunt’s bedside when the call came in, and realised her house was in the path of the fire. I didn’t tell her, she would have panicked. I just took off.”
With the wind behind him Noel practically flew down the Princess Freeway. But with time ticking and the temperature soaring to 40 degrees, he somehow found an opportunity to grab a ride with a ute driver – jumping out and continuing on the bike once the car became mired in the traffic chaos.
Noel made it on time to turn out with the brigade, finding himself in the midst of a fire that claimed the lives of nine residents and 12 firefighters.
He recalls witnessing the incredible sight of the fire burning straight across the Cardinia Reservoir, such was the intensity of the heat and the rolling wind.
“There were many occasions where we found ourselves in the hot seat because of the conditions. And it kept cropping up in the back of my mind: what if I end up at my aunt’s place and how will I react if it’s destroyed?”
Despite the extremity of the circumstances, he doesn’t recall feeling overwhelmed or frightened. “Maybe it was my age, maybe it was the adrenaline pumping. We were just there doing what had to be done.”
“All I can say is that I went in very green and came back as black as could be.”
It wasn’t until 1am that Noel’s crew was finally able to get back to the fire station to grab some sleep. “Everyone just bunked down at the station but first I had to go down and see my boss, to tell him I’d be a bit late in. I’d just taken four weeks’ off to cycle to Adelaide and was meant to be starting work the next morning.
“He said – don’t worry about work, you do what you need to do and come back to work when that is done. My boss was a local, and he understood. “
The fire destroyed 238 properties in the area, but narrowly missed Noe’s aunt’s place.
Noel has served with the Upwey Fire Brigade for nearly 34 years and holds a National Medal. Funnily enough it was cycling that led him to the brigade in the first place.
“I used to cycle over the Dandenong Ranges and one day I got passed by the Upwey tanker. They were giving me cheek, saying ‘what’s wrong with you, keep up’. So I chased them all the way back to the station – and followed them in.
Noel not only kept up: he ended up joining the brigade. 34 years later he hasn’t looked back.
The theme for National Volunteer Week 2016 is ‘Give Happy, Live Happy’. This year we are publishing a special series of stories around the topic of 'first call-outs'.