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Wye River Captain Roy reflects on Xmas Day
No words can describe the emotions we are feeling as a brigade. No words can describe the courage the crews that came to help us displayed yesterday…
Our own members were brilliant and gave everything they could along with the amazing work of DELWP firefighters… Not everything went our way but everyone involved should be very proud of what they gave to our amazing community.
From Wye River Fire Brigade’s Facebook page, 26 December 2015
Strange to say, but 116 houses are destroyed in a Christmas Day bushfire – including the houses of four brigade members – and yet the story is a positive one.
“There was an orderly evacuation and no loss of life,” says Wye River Captain Roy Moriarty. “We still marvel at it.”
Perhaps it’s not so difficult to understand such a sentiment when so many communities and brigades have suffered deaths in the face of bushfire. “No loss of life” is the gold standard.
The difficult-to-access Wye River-Jamieson Track fire was started by lightning on 19 December 2015. It had burned over 2,500 hectares by the time it was declared contained on January 21.
“It was a long, slow burn before Christmas Day,” continues Roy. “The original lightning strike was in inaccessible country and couldn't be ringed by dozers so it was then burnt out to Jamieson Track. We were out most days with DELWP blacking out the edges.
“The MEBU [Mobile Education bus] had been in town handing out information since the 21st. On the 23rd we had good attendance at a community meeting which included Incident Controller Alistair Drayton and Lappo [Craig Lapsley] police and ambos. The message was to be on guard, be alert, fire in the vicinity, weather coming. We were concerned but thought it would stay in containment lines.
“By that stage, the emergency services already had an evacuation plan.”
In fact, the combined local volunteer genius of CFA and Surf Lifesaving had formulated a full-scale emergency plan several years earlier to contend with their patch on the Great Ocean Road a long way from back-up. Their ‘community volunteers’ self-reliance initiative – a 2011 Fire Awareness Award winner – involves recruiting both regulars and visitors in the caravan parks who can organise or comfort or who are hands-on, to support an emergency response.
As for the fire brigade, their plan was always based on the assumption that they would be alone with no help and only their tank water.
“We want people out of town while we stay to protect our major infrastructure,” says Roy, “which includes the general store with its generator, the surf club bunkhouse and our fire station and the surf lifesaving club which both have sprinklers. The club is on a concrete block with a disability ramp and a first-aid room, and our brigade has paid for its sprinklers, fire pump and generator. We can draught water out of the river there.”
Twas the night before Christmas and Roy sent out a text to check on availability for the next day. The numbers were grim: only eight firefighters and four community volunteers. By the following day, however, another eight community volunteers had been recruited from the caravan park.
“By Christmas Day, the fire was four kilometres away up the hill,” continues Roy. “It was very windy up there but it was protected and relatively calm by the coast. The police had doorknocked Sep[aration Creek] then us and I set off the town evacuation siren at about 11.30am. Everybody had the chance to collect their valuables and two of our community volunteers guided traffic out of town.
“We’d all envisaged a million questions but everybody just took direction and got out of town. There were plenty of Christmas lunches left in ovens but there wasn’t really any drama.
“I thought we wouldn’t have enough manpower to cover all our assets but that morning the cavalry arrived before the firefront! We got three strike teams including the Coastal Group which got into Sep from Lorne – we knew they’d be on top of everything – and Wye got about 50 DELWP slip-ons. They’d tried to hold it on the upper roads before getting to us. The Great Ocean Road is the back line; there’s nowhere else to fall back to.
“I was working as the sector commander under the DELWP divisional commander and he said, ‘If you saw what was coming over the hill…’”
The firefront hit at about 3pm and time started to blur for Roy. Houses were lost soon afterwards and helitacks were seen working over Separation Creek with buckets on 60-metre lines to enable pinpointed dumping.
“The pitch black and the roar of a fire: we didn’t have them,” says Roy. “We didn’t have the winds. We didn’t have the embers everywhere. We had the high flame but nobody seemed to think it was like 2009.
“When the houses were burning I heard explosions and the big trees coming down made big vibrations, but I think we were all pretty calm. I didn’t see any panic. Everyone just did their job.
“DELWP were in the two caravan parks and their slip-ons were up narrow driveways and along winding roads. One tanker was on our fire station, two were on the surf club and another two were looking after the pub.”
(Note: many members consider saving the pub a key CFA deliverable!)
“It’s now CFA regulations that new houses have 10,000-litre water tanks and they were a real asset.
“We thought we’d had a win because we expected no help and every house gone. I put the sprinklers on my house and headed down to the fire station. I didn’t expect it to be there when I got back but there were no houses lost in my street. We didn’t lose one house on Pub Hill which is our driest hill
“Everybody, every agency, our brigade, our [Corangamite] group, our old [Coastal] group, other groups, our district, DELWP from all over Victoria, helicopters… I’d never entered helicopters into our Township Protection Plan and there they were working and we didn’t even have to organise them.”
Eighteen aircraft were used on this fire including helicopters, air tankers, aircranes and, for the first time in Australia, a 7,500-litre-capacity Chinook, the enormous twin-engine helicopter used by the American military.
One aircraft carried a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) camera to identify hot areas around the fire perimeter. These were laid over the map of the fire and used to generate tasks for ground crews including alpine specialist ‘arduous’ firefighters from New Zealand.
Into January, ground crews strengthened 150 kilometres of tracks and road networks as breaks to be used as fall back lines should the fire jump current containment lines. This included 12 kilometres on foot along the edge of the fire in terrain as steep as 40 degrees.
Roy sums it up. “We did the best we could in such a terrible situation. I'm proud of the fact we ran the community meetings prior to Christmas to inform people. With the help of the Property Advice Visit Service [PAVS] door knocking recently, I believe this has helped save lives.”
Photo by Peter Cecil