Monday, February 25, 2013

Fires at Tallarook

Early Sunday afternoon I got a beep from the CFA FireReady app - a new fire had started very close to our property, in the Dabyminga Creek Reserve at the bottom of our hill and was reportedly spreading up the hill quickly. Very soon afterwards I had several phone calls from concerned neighbours, checking that I wasn't up on the hill working without knowledge of the fire.

My neighbours Craig & Bec evacuated their family down to the bottom of the hill as a precaution, and I sat a home in Melbourne looking at my phone waiting for another update, but I couldn't stand the feeling of helplessness and so without much of a plan, decided to jump in the car and drive up. I know there's nothing I can do in the event of a fire, but I suppose more than anything I wanted to be nearby not only for information, but to lend support to Craig and others on the hill.

As I approached on the highway there wasn't a lot to see in the hills, but from our road I could see the smoke from the fire and a couple of helicopters working on it. I went all the way up the top of the hill and with no signs of fire anywhere nearby, retired to a friend's place to catch up with Craig.

When I arrived there, Karl was loading a water tank and pump onto his ute as a precaution in case the fire turned towards their place, and with nothing else to do we hopped in and drove back up the hill to our block to investigate. However, once we arrived I got another ping from the FireReady app indicating that a new fire had started over on Landscape Rd, and from their map coordinates it was actually at Peter's (my architect/builder/adult supervision) place! With Peter in India for a couple of weeks and nothing happening on our side of the hill, Karl & I decided to head over there with our water to see if we could help.

On the way in it was clear that this was a proper fire...

When we arrived, Peter's partner and their housemate were frantically making preparations for the fire so we pulled in with the water to offer assistance. A member of the DSE had arrived a little while before having seen the alert and smoke himself, and he'd gone over the creek to the fire to assess the situation and rake out the edges of the fire, to prevent it spreading downhill to the creek. If the fire got down there and crossed over, there'd be nothing stopping it racing uphill to the house. It was already pretty close, only a few hundred metres away and the CFA had responded with air support, tasking the water bombers from the Dabyminga fire near our place over to this fire.

There was absolutely no way to get near the fire with tankers; it was tough country to walk through with all the big granite and so the CFA weren't committing tankers and crew to this end of the fire. They were more concerned with the fire spreading over the top of the hill towards farmland on the plateau above and the Tallarook township beyond.

Karl & I ventured down to the creek to lend a hand, and began blacking out the leading edge of the grass fire, but were recalled not long afterwards so the water bombers could get in close.

With that we retired to the house, and busied ourselves clearing a fire break around the house waiting for dusk, when the water bombers would stop work for the day. Reinforcements were called for (a ragtag bunch of friends, locals and one or two DSE members nearby) and once the choppers left the scene we went in armed with rakes, shovels, rake-hoes and chainsaws with a plan to build a containment line along the western edge of the fire to prevent it creeping downhill and reaching the creek. In the meantime, the water bombers did their thing.

(No, that's not the sunset)

Once the bombers finished up, we began work by choosing a line to contain the fire, then digging a strip about a metre wide clear of grass, leaf litter and branches so that the fire has nowhere to go once it burns up to the line. With the fire close by and wearing heavy protective clothing, this was hot and difficult work. I definitely have a new appreciation for the work that the CFA and their volunteers do... With nightfall we worked by torchlight and fire light, with the basically full moon being a dim orange ball in the sky through the smoke.

We worked through the night, pushing our containment line to the north along the creek, blotting out flareups and felling trees which were either going to fall by themselves, or which were already alight and a threat to the containment. To the north of the line, the big granite really started getting in the way and it became increasingly difficult to clear a containment line or move freely. Sometime around midnight the fire up there flared up and so we made a final stand with a delaying tactic, clearing debris off the rocks and cutting a makeshift break to try and slow the fire's progress towards the creek to give the professionals as much of a chance as possible with the water bombers in the morning.

We finally pulled out of the field around 2am, and left the fire in the custody of the CFA who had finally arrived with a tanker to provide protection for the house in case our containment lines failed with a predicted northerly wind shift.

Thankfully the wind never really arrived, and when I checked in at around 11am the fire at the house was basically out, our containment having held the fire back before the creek.

I really am amazed at the response to the fire from a bunch of guys who just came together to help a local. None of us were fire fighters, but we all worked all night to protect somebody else's house without hesitation, and I'm sure we'd all do it again tomorrow.


  1. Those photos are scary Simon. Good on you for getting in there and helping out. And we were so lucky with the lack of wind- it could have been much much worse for a lot of people. The CFA have done an amazing job this year keeping so many fires in check in such difficult conditions. Well done.

    1. Hey Caro,

      Some of the photos make the fire look worse than it actually was, there were a few hotspots flaring up occasionally but for the most part it was pretty sedate. Had there been more wind however, it would have been a very different story and I don't think we would have been able to get as much of a containment line cut as we did.

      It definitely gives me a new appreciation for the work that the CFA does, in what must be pretty frightening conditions at times.