by John Robertson
On Tuesday, 17th July a page came asking firefighters to advise availability for deployment to a fire around Binnaburra Lodge. This was followed shortly by a call for Paul (TM2 and crew leader), Rory and Robbo to form a crew and leave asap. This we did in 52 at 1800 and in the dark.
As we were nearing Binnaburra large-scale fires were visible in several directions. Subsequently we learned that two ‘controlled’ burns – one at Binnaburra and one at Springbrook were well and truly out of control. The Binnaburra fire was burning up to the windows of the Lodge and northwards along both the valleys on either side. Conditions were difficult with very low humidity and gusty westerly winds. The residents of the Lodge and chalets had been evacuated. The road up to Binnaburra is reminiscent of the Goat Track but its upper side is higher and more precipitous. Rocks and big branches were on the road with more just waiting to fall. (A tree had fallen across the road by the time we left but it had been sawn up by another Brigade.) Various other rural Brigades were on site including Tamborine, Chambers Flats, Mudgeeraba and Gilston.
Immediately after reporting to the Incident Controller we were assigned to protect the southern end of the Lodge. That done – largely because the fire had burnt all the fuel – we were then assigned to the eastern section. Here the fire was burning strongly in a northerly direction. The expectation was that its march along the eastern valley would be stopped either by a high cliff face or by rainforest. In the event burning logs fell over the cliff and into the rainforest where it proceeded to burn enthusiastically.
Our task was a specific one – to protect and preserve the sewage treatment plant. Seemingly unglamorous this is a vital piece of infrastructure on which the whole Binnaburra complex depends. It was reached down a narrow, winding and very one-way track. It even had burning logs along its edge. An electric power line could be seen heading through burnt forest towards the plant but the connection at the plant was cut. So we kept well clear of the likely location of the downed power line. You would think a sewage plant would not be liable to burn but this plant was a mass of stored, highly combustible and vigorously combusting material – timber frames, saw logs galore, coils of plastic pipe and the rest. To cap it off it was overhung by a very large eucalypt which was burning internally and inside its major branches. In wind gusts it gave off showers of sparks which put the average fireworks display to shame. We kept a keen eye on the branches as it was apparent they might fall. One did and came close to Rory but we had retreated in time. We had to refill with water up at the Lodge and return to site to complete the job. About 30 metres from the plant there was a burning giant pile of giant logs. These were glowing red throughout and could have barbecued an elephant. We left them to burn out.
At this point we returned to the main road and there met up with Tamborine 51 and CF52. The possibility was that all of us might go down the track into the valley and try to halt the fire spread there. However a new operations officer had arrived in the person of Phil Young, First Officer of Gilston RFB. Phil brought sense and order into the whole operation and did so by, among other things, going around, seeing exactly what was what and personally speaking to each crew. His message to us; “If you go down that dead-end track there is a good chance that your only line of retreat will be cut off by a falling tree. I’m not going to risk lives to preserve national park.”
Phil instructed us to return to the Lodge. Tamborine 51’s battery was flat so we gave it a prompt tow start with our chain. It was now around midnight. We refilled with water and our assigned role at the Lodge was to protect the western roadside below the Lodge from incursion by the fire coming up from the valley. This was made harder by the increasing wind. Together with other rural Brigades we stopped this fire by direct attack using ample foam. We then went into standby (and snooze-if-possible) mode. Around 0300 the wind got up again with really strong gusts. This re-ignited the remains of internal fires in some trees. So we set to and re-extinguished successfully. Then back to standby/snooze mode. Just on daylight Phil got us all together for an informal but excellent de-brief which included thanks to all the crews. This was in the Lodge dining room with a continental breakfast arranged by two girls on the Lodge staff. The view is quite magnificent and looks down near vertically into the valleys. We could see the fire heading northwards in both valleys – but not threatening any lives or infrastructure. The NPWS Incident Controller thanked all the rural firefighters in most emphatic terms.
About 0700 relief crews were on hand so we headed for home. As we did so the big fire at Springbrook was very obvious. A day later its drifting smoke is still obvious. The good news; Binnaburra need not fear another fire on its doorstep for several years to come – there is hardly anything left to burn. On the other hand if there is a downpour quite soon the access road may disappear under falling trees, rocks and mud.
This was a challenging job in several ways but, correspondingly, great experience for Paul and his crew.