Westmere Group Officer John Chapman talks risk

While 19 brigades might sound unwieldy, they form a tight unit in District 16’s Westmere Group to the east of the Grampians.

By Leith Hillard

Group Officer John Chapman described them as close knit brigades in plains country with some stony rises. It’s predominantly sheep and cropping land with areas of low-lying crops becoming water logged in this year's spring rains.

John is pretty specific about the timing of the fire season: “it traditionally runs from early January and tails off about 20 February.

“The risk is fast-running grassfires on a north-westerly, and the ones that come earlier in the day are a worry. At Streatham in ’77 it was running at 20 kilometres an hour which takes a bit of getting hold of.”

The largest recent local fire was 2015 in Moyston with Westmere Group attacking the head as it approached their boundary.

“We had a couple of lucky saves last year when fires with plenty of fuel and gathering momentum ran into green paddocks,” continued John.

“As soon as the grass dries off towards the end of December, we’ll burn off hundreds of kilometres of roadside undergrowth. Our brigades are very well organised with break- burning and trigger the burns with drip torches on motorbikes. These are followed by heavy tankers, both CFA and privately owned, and smaller units patrol and keep watch on the burnt areas."

The cost saving to the community from the group’s roadside burning has been analysed by Westmere DGOs David Allen from Woorndoo and Mark Gubbins from Chatsworth. If the activity was paid for, the cost would range from $650-$850 per kilometre. With the group burning up to 480 kilometres each year, this shows the enormous value of their voluntary work.

The group runs a 12:30pm radio sched every day during the fire danger period, and an additional 10am sched occurs every Total Fire Ban day with each brigade broadcasting its human and firefighting resources. Busy phone trees organise a designated crew for each brigade on a bad day.

During that mid-morning sched, the group officer may suggest that the group cease mechanical harvesting activity while conditions remain extreme. The seven deputy group officers vote and, if required, a deciding vote can be made by the group officer. The decision is announced at the conclusion of the sched and repeated during the lunchtime sched.

“We’ve been informally running mechanical harvesting advice for 40-odd years,” continued John. “With wind on top of heat, everyone’s thinking about forward rate of spread. There’s a strong streak of commonsense running through our brigades so there’s always been pretty good uptake of the recommendation and the harvesters go quiet.”

CFA tankers are always crewed first for a fire in the group area, backed up by an army of 400 private units, 200 of them heavy units including ex-CFA trucks or privately-built appliances. John recently tendered for an ex CFA unit at Manheim and secured a tanker which is now equipped with a UHF radio and digital listening set.

There are about 500 listening sets in houses and private appliances across the group with extra listening sets purchased on top of the group's standard digital allocation. Digital sets took some time to set up due to their limited availability and the desire to ensure the listening public over the group area didn’t miss any information.

Jonathan Coutts runs the group communications base from Mininera which is central to the group, using the repeater on Kulkurt Hill. He is assisted by sub-bases at Skipton, Tatyoon, Maroona, Willaura and Stoneleigh.

There are many dynamic operational couples across the group and often that means one person assisting on the fireground while the other maintains communication from home, one of the sub-bases or from the local command facility at Willaura.

“Operationally, half of Stoneleigh's brigade members are women,” said John of his home brigade, “and that’s most essential. With these new high-tech tankers, a lot of firefighting can be done from the cabin and a couple of people could contain an incident very well in the interlude before more tankers are on scene.

“Generally, though, someone will stay at home. Properties here tend to be well prepared and sheep allow you to have eaten out areas around the houses. Historically locals have tended to stay and defend when fires approach.”

Author: Duncan Russell