Ash Wednesday reflection from Chief Officer Jason Heffernan

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Forty years ago today, Victoria faced one of its worst bushfire tragedies in history which killed 47 people, including 14 CFA volunteers, as a result of the ferocious Ash Wednesday fires.


Today I want to remember, honour and reflect on the incredible strength and commitment of the 16,000+ emergency service workers who stood shoulder to shoulder to protect their communities on that day – and in the many days which followed. The family, friends and loved ones of the 14 firefighters who paid the ultimate sacrifice are always in my thoughts.

As one of the most bushfire-prone environments in the world, Victoria has been confronted with many devastating fires throughout its history. Ash Wednesday is one of those which is permanently etched in the minds of a generation who lived through those darkest of days.

The extreme nature of the conditions meant human efforts to fight or control the fire were incapable of succeeding until conditions moderated, leaving crews to focus on trying to sustain life against the odds.

The incredible acts of bravery on that day prevented an even greater loss of life and property and I thank all those who selflessly played a role in protecting the lives of others.

The tragic events of Ash Wednesday were a catalyst for many changes across the emergency services sector, both here in Victoria and across the nation, leading to improvements in planning, procedures, training and resources, which resulted in the world-class firefighting services Victoria has today.

Protective equipment for firefighters, vehicle safety, community warnings and communications systems were all updated and improved in the wake of that devastating day.

Firefighting vehicles stalled on Ash Wednesday because petrol evaporated, forcing some CFA volunteers to flee their trucks and take shelter wherever they could. CFA and all fire agencies have since made major technological and design advancements to their firefighting fleet to better protect firefighters. This included the implementation of diesel vehicles with bigger pumps and heat shields, and crew protection systems. We continue to improve and boost our  firefighting capability with the recent rollout of 50 new replacement tankers and plans to soon deliver new ultra-heavy tankers to identified brigades.

Meanwhile, aircraft used on the day were either privately-owned or used for observation only. Aerial firefighting appliances are now a staple of Victoria’s firefighting response, and CFA relies heavily on these assets to support its ground crews.

Victorians no doubt recognise the famous CFA ‘yellows’ our volunteers are often seen wearing, but they weren’t always worn by members on the fireground. Until Ash Wednesday, most brigades had overalls and a few helmets to throw on when responding to an incident. We are continuing to improve our Personal Protective Clothing (PPC) with the recent announcement of our Next Generation Wildfire PPC to be rolled out later this year, further enhancing the safety and protection of our firefighters.

There was also a major overhaul in communications to increase the number of radio channels as radio traffic congestion was an issue on the day.

Following the Ash Wednesday fires, Victorians also saw the introduction of bushfire refuges and places of last resort.

Command and control response arrangements, fire behaviour and modelling research as well as wellbeing support were also improved or introduced post those fateful fires.

The wellbeing and support to our firefighters is incredibly important following any major incident. While sadly there was little to no mental health support prior to Ash Wednesday, CFA now has a range of wellbeing support services that are free, confidential and available to all volunteers, employees and their immediate family members.

Many firefighters were inspired to join their local brigade as a result of living through the Ash Wednesday fires. We have many exceptional members around the state today, taking on roles as captains, group officers, incident controllers, crew leaders, firefighters and community safety educators.

On the 40th anniversary today, I also want to acknowledge the remarkable resilience of our communities which recovered and rebuilt after 1983, and remain vigilant against the ever-present threat of bushfire.

We will never forget tragedies like Ash Wednesday, but we learn from them. Sadly, there will be more devastating bushfires in the future, but the community should take comfort in knowing we now have some of the best firefighters in the world, ready to protect lives and property across the state.

We will continue to remember and honour our fallen heroes and we will always strive to be better prepared and to learn from our experiences every day.


Submitted by Chief Officer Jason Heffernan