The small township of Newmerella, 5 kilometres from Orbost, escaped the East Gippsland fires in 2019 because of good preparation, the vigilance of its brigade, and a lucky wind change.
When the immediate danger had passed, Captain Jason Griebenow and his team turned their attention to helping others in neighbouring areas, to great effect.
The brigade’s tanker initially patrolled areas along and off the Princes Highway, until fire came out of the bush and into farmland from two different directions late on 30 December 2019. Newmerella’s and two out-of-town tankers were directed west to Waygara, to help farmers try to put out a blaze that had quickly covered an 8-hectare paddock. They brought that fire under control, then blacked out the next day.
In the following two weeks, the brigade conducted a successful 5-kilometre back-burn to safeguard local farms at Waygara, and another burn at Partellis Crossing after a call-out there. But its biggest contribution was made a fortnight later at Tamboon.
Jason explains: “One of our members, Dean Herbert, has a house at Tamboon and was concerned because fire was approaching on every side and the community only had a 1000-litre unit on a trailer owned by someone there. He asked if he could approach Steve Dorman [MFB Commander] to take a tanker there. I said that could happen, but he’d have to run it past the MFB at Orbost.” Dean was subsequently given clearance, and Jason arranged to send in supplies and radios. “They were fairly aware that they’d be trapped there,” he says.
Tamboon, a settlement of 15 houses, is enclosed by bush, with only Tamboon Inlet providing a way out when the road is cut off. Jason heard from Dean later that night. “The fire’s coming,” said Dean. “We’ve got permission to light a back-burn and it’s going to happen soon. It’s totally surrounding us.” Dean was with brothers Glen, also from Newmerella, and Frank, from the Cann Valley brigade, and residents Adolino Marchi, Joe Di Luca and Ernest Vale. It was a small outfit with a small tanker and a few private vehicles.
Jason, a relatively new Captain at the time, had faith in the firefighters’ abilities, but when he got a call at home that night, he was worried. A senior officer from FFMVic who was involved in the operation radioed to say that he’d given Dean a ‘wellbeing call’ and Dean hadn’t answered. Jason tried to ring him but couldn’t raise him either, so he left a message asking Dean to call back and let him know the crew was safe. Jason then turned in but couldn’t get to sleep.
At 3.30am, Dean finally called: “All good. Just been under the pump keeping water round the houses, on woodheaps, putting out spot fires, etc.”.
“That’s all that matters,” replied Jason, “that you’re OK.”
“Dean said later it had been a textbook burn, pulling the controlled fire into the bushfire coming towards them,” says Jason. “It had worked perfectly.”
All the national park back to Cann River to the south-east had burned, as well as west from Bemm River. But the fire, burning to the crowns of the large trees, had stopped on the edge of the buffer created by the firefighters. “I was so proud of the way it all worked,” says Jason. “It saved a small community. They managed to save all those houses.”
Newmerella brigade continued to help out others, lending its shiny new big-fill to Bemm River brigade, then to DELWP, deploying a tanker and crew to Marlo to assist there, and supporting Wairewa Captain Julian Davies.
Jason visited Tamboon a year later for a community reunion. By then, Ernest, Adolino and Joe had joined CFA. “I looked around and was stunned at what they did,” says Jason. The people of Tamboon presented him with a large canvas photo of what are now known as the ‘Tamboon Six’ with the Newmerella tanker and the trailer. Jason says he was told that “without that little tanker, we couldn’t have done it”.
Brigade members involved: 10
Range of experience: from newly trained to 45 years
Supporting roles: non-operational members checking weather, updating members
Areas: Newmerella, Bemm River, Cape Conran, Tamboon, Orbost
Campaign duration: 27 December 2019 to early February 2020
Jason's story is one of many of the 2019-20 fires profiled in the new book, Our Black Summer. The entire book can be read online on the CFA website.