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Local Heroes

OUR LOCAL Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigades have been working tirelessly over what has turned out to be a very long summer.

Commencing with support to the Rural Fire Service (RFS) in New South Wales in October, members of Warrandyte, South Warrandyte, North Warrandyte and Wonga Park have joined their firefighting colleagues around the country.

As discussed in the December Diary, there were members from all our local brigades deployed to New South Wales.

Since that time, the brigades have sent members to the conflagration in East Gippsland, the Victorian Alpine Fires, as well as several fires closer to home — in Plenty Gorge and Sunbury.

Most importantly, the brigades have retained a contingent back at the station to protect the local area as our summer kicks in.

The Diary sat down with a panel of volunteer officers and CFA station staff from our local brigades to discuss the events of a very busy summer.

2nd Lieutenant from Wonga Park, Luke Summerscales said the CFA has been busy since September, with bushfires in Queensland, New South Wales and now Victoria.

“The NSW deployments were full on, CFA had 50 trucks and 20 support vehicles all sent to NSW — and thousands of firefighters on the ground all at once,” he said.

He said it was fortunate that the CFA crews were released from the NSW fires when they were, just before Gippsland took off.

Warrandyte member and District Group Officer (DGO) for the Maroondah Group of brigades, Shane Murphy told the Diary that the group currently has  an ongoing commitment in Gippsland.

“We have had 20 rotations of crews that have gone through there since December 28.

“They have been a mixture of brigades from around here, either individually or as composite crews that have made up the strike teams,” he said.

He said the crews have been undertaking a range of duties, including firefighting and asset protection and have been fairly active during that period of time.

“Now on top of that, there were a number of strike teams that went out on more of a short haul, out for a day,” he said.

The brigades’ vehicles have been busy too.

South Warrandyte Tanker has been out on the fireground constantly since November 8.

The highest ranking volunteer at South Warrandyte, 1st Lieutenant Nathan McDonald told the Diary that the truck spent time in Grafton and Singleton.

The truck was on its way back home when fires in Batemans Bay caused it to be redeployed to the New South Wales South Coast, where it spent the remainder of the year.

After Batemans Bay, it made it back from there to Seymour where it received minor repairs by CFA mechanics before being delivered back to the station.

“We put in about five hours into cleaning the appliance, then it was back on-line for about 45 minutes before it got shanghaied up to Wangaratta to form up another strike team,” Lt McDonald said.

South Warrandyte Station Officer Peter Nolan said the tanker was originally crewed by a South Warrandyte crew in New South Wales, but when it came back it was used on about three or four Staff Strike Teams — one of South Warrandyte’s Station Officers plus a South Warrandyte volunteer, who is a staff member in Portland, were on it.

“We have a photo up there of him standing in front of the truck, miles away.”

South Warrandyte’s tanker has been used far and wide.

“It has racked up a few kilometres,” SO Nolan said.

Warrandyte Captain Adrian Mullens explains the trucks and the crews are two separate entities.

“The trucks can come from everywhere and once they have the trucks together, they become a resource,” he said.

DGO Murphy adds: “The groups of trucks that are sent away are always a similar configuration of trucks, all the trucks have similar capability, so if you are used to having a truck of a similar capacity then you will go away on a group of trucks that have a similar capacity — what name is on it doesn’t matter — it’s a red truck — it doesn’t even need to be red — if it is a truck that you have some crews and some knowledge with, then they make sure they have someone as strike team leader that can make sure that they have the right crews and resources and are going in the right direction.”

Warrandyte has made great use of its Slip-On appliance, which was purchased with the proceeds of the 2016 Fireball.

South Warrandyte’s brand-new Forward Control Vehicle, also purchased with thanks to Fireball has been at Buchan in East Gippsland as the Forward Control Vehicle.

“It only had 1,300kms on it.

The morning it went away we had it serviced at Yarra Valley Toyota.

“So a big thank you to Yarra Valley Toyota and a big thanks to Fireball,” said Lt McDonald.

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Images courtesy Wonga Park CFA

Deployments

North Warrandyte members have been deployed all over East Gippsland, from Buchan to Mallacoota with crews working five-day rotations — with one day’s travel to and from the fire and three days working on the fireground.

Some of our local firefighters were at Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve.

“They were very busy, saved a lot of houses,” Lt McDonald said.

“The foreshore caravan park had around 9,000 people so I think by the time they closed the road about 3,000 people had left and there were still about 5–6,000 people, and all the residents that had decided to stay and defend their property,” he said.

He said the crews had trigger points for the trucks to fall back into town.

“The triggers were hit pretty early on Tuesday morning, so all the crews fell back into the Mallacoota township.

North Warrandyte Captain, Trent Burris added: “They were told that it was going to be 24 hours before it got there and it came in 12”.

Lt McDonald said between about 8am until midday the crews were flat out, some working 36 hours straight.

“They were putting out house fires, spot fires, car fires, whatever was popping up where it was blowing into the town.

“They had a brief reprieve for about an hour and a half before it went through another area and popped out the back and started impacting more houses on the other side.

“They worked right through that day and into the following morning, just going around mopping up, and trying to put out any of the fires that were still burning that were impacting on further properties.

“A lot of good work was done in Mallacoota,” he said.

Wonga Park 1st Lieutenant Warren Aikman said he and his crew were deployed to the Buchan area.

“We worked on road clearing — on the road to McKillops Bridge — in addition to patrolling the fire line around Buchan and assisting local brigades and residents to eliminate hot spots and secure properties,” he said.

The volunteers from South Warrandyte have also been busy.

There have been three rotations of crew deployed on tankers, with some members working on the Forward Control Vehicle either as Driver or Assistant Strike Team Leader.

Members from South Warrandyte have been posted to East Gippsland since late December, working in Buchan, Bruthen and Mallacoota

“We had a combined crew with Wonga Park on the Tarneet Tanker in Mallacoota — trucks were from here, there and everywhere.

“Some crews were on Eltham Tanker, then Kangaroo Ground and Tarneet”.

Since their deployment to NSW, the Warrandyte brigade have been involved in fires at Plenty Gorge and were deployed to the fires around Banalla and Euroa.

Protecting home

Lt McDonald said that brigades have to be careful when deploying people to keep enough crews for local jobs and not to overtax brigade members.

However, he says having staff manning the station has aleviated this issue at his station somewhat.

“In years gone by you always had to consider, who am I going to send away and who am I going to have still at home to respond to local jobs because — you still have a duty of care for your own community,” he said.

Each of the brigades has sent around 15 members to the fires, which in most cases is around a half of their active volunteer firefighter contingent.

Captain Mullens said there is an impact to families and employers when CFA members need to be deployed, especially for self-employed members.

“For people who work in the public sector they have Emergency Services Leave, but for the guys that work for themselves …”

Lt McDonald adding that he and other members took annual leave to be able to volunteer for Strike Teams.

“At any one time if you send a crew away it is usually four or five people and then if you are trying to send a changeover crew as well — that is 10 people out of your brigade and that takes almost a third of your active members away, especially when you have come into a season when you have had NSW deployments in October, November, December and then we start hitting our fire season and people are getting back into work,” he said.

Overwhelming support

3rd Lieutenant Peter Cahill from North Warrandyte said there has been an “absolute plethora” of people expressing interest in volunteering.

The best avenue to register is to fill out the expression of interest form on the CFA’s website and that will be allocated to your closest brigade.

Captain Mullens acknowledges that it is a very emotional time and people are keen to pitch in.

However, the best course of action is let the dust settle.

“And if you are still interested in April then apply for a recruit course, which will be run later in the year”.

The danger is not over yet 

Captain Mullens advised residents to “get out and still clean up around your houses”.

Saying there will be a lot of new growth after the rainfall.

“February is traditionally our bad time of the year, and there is a lot of leaf litter around after the hailstorms the other day.

“There is a bit of a false sense of security now that the weather has cooled off, but it is far from over,” he said.