Mount Tamborine Ablaze!

by John Robertson

So shouted the press, radio and TV over the weekend of 10th to 12th August. The whole Mountain was certainly enveloped in smoke. The cause was two big fires, one on the south-west flank of the Mountain and one on the north-east. The first caused the closure of the Goat Track and the second the closure of the Tamborine-Oxenford Road. This second fire was in the vicinity of Hayes Road and thus in the Gold Coast area and that of the Gold Coast Brigades. This report is about the Goat Track fire only.

The first fire started in the forest below that section of the Goat Track controlled by the lights. It began life as a permitted burn. The wind was light and the temperature moderate but the ground was very dry and the humidity very low indeed. As a result the daytime fire risk was well into the ‘High’ range and the burn got out of control. Being on the steep slope up towards the Goat Track it soon created its own anabatic wind which fanned the flames further. At 17.15 on Friday we were paged to attend. All three trucks turned out and the crews were augmented on site by members who arrived in their own vehicles. Tony was first at the fire in his own car and became ‘TM Mobile Base’. His work in helping us all was invaluable. There was mixing and matching of crews and trucks and one or two members had to leave before the end of the session at 0800 on Saturday morning. However, the usual allocation was TM51; John H (TM1), Rory, Barry and Kim: TM52; Robbo, Shane and David: TM41; Paul (TM2) and Neville. Wil Buch was there in his Fire Warden and advisory role and Karen as Group Officer at Incident Control.

The initial strategy was to stop the fire, which was still quite small, with local back burns. These ‘back burns’ had no defined control lines and just increased the initial fire. Then there was a change of incident control and with it a change of strategy. While this was happening there was a most welcome interlude where we all gathered at the control point and Gail and Marcia came with lots of excellent pizzas. These were shared with all the crews present who tucked in with relish. The new strategy was to back burn over a wider area working off natural and more defensible control lines. Our teams worked hard and successfully to ensure those control lines were not crossed. Then came yet another change of incident control and a radical change in strategy. This required lighting up across all those lines which we had worked so hard to preserve. At the time it seemed to our crews an odd and frustrating decision. Events proved otherwise.

The basis for the change was that the much of the area surrounding the fire was due for a prescribed burn later in the year. At about midnight we started to burn the entire area. The northern boundary and starting line for the burn was the bulldozed track running approximately under the high-voltage power supply line to the west of the Mountain, the western boundary was the top end of the properties along Mundoolin Road, the eastern boundary was the Goat Track or well-established internal tracks near to it within the forest and the southern boundary was a bulldozed track running East-West parallel to and some 4 km south of the power line. The extent of the burn was about 600 hectares. Other Beaudesert Group units arrived in support and Canungra Auxiliaries refilled our water.

A fully fledged mobile incident control centre from Gold Coast Group was set up at the top of the Goat Track and the Goat Track itself was closed. The ICC had all the trimmings and more radio aerials than you could poke a stick at. The decision was to go ahead at once with the major burn during the hours of darkness. It was an excellent call as this was the period within the 24 hours of minimum fire risk and the lowest rate of fire spread thus giving the best opportunity for good control. The outcome was that by first light the northern flank of the burn was largely complete and, notwithstanding very high fuel loads, the control lines were secure.

Our Brigade’s trucks plus J51 had the task of protecting the control line on the bulldozed track under the power lines. This was no simple task with impressive flames going to the tree tops close to the track. The track itself was narrow, rough, winding and steep; so steep that in one place trucks could go downhill only. Part way through the exercise the four trucks which were in line ahead adopted a version of the ‘step up’ method with rake hoes. That is to say with four trucks the lead truck went to the fourth hot spot along and each succeeding truck dealt with its corresponding hot spot. Then we ‘stepped up’ four spots for the next round and so on. It was apparent that there were a number of burning trees which were likely to fall across the track blocking it and perhaps bridging the control line. By about 0700 our trucks had completed the transit of the track down almost to Mundoolin Road. David and Robbo in 52 did a patrol back up the track which showed that, burning trees apart, the control line was in good shape. On the return journey two trees had already fallen across the track and the chainsaw was needed. At about 0800 we gathered at the ICC at the top of the Goat Track and had an excellent breakfast served by SES volunteers. The trucks, fed and watered, were all back at the Station by 0930.

Our crews returned on Saturday evening and through to Sunday to continue the burn on the southern and then the western flanks. Ken, Roger, Jenny, Manuel and Malcolm joined the party. There were several other Brigades supporting us. Many trees fell with Roger and Shane and later Paul and Manuel having close shaves. Happily in each case they moved just in time so no one was hurt and no damage was done. About a score of trees eventually fell across the various tracks and were chain-sawed. Around 2200 on Saturday “Kim’s Bomb” went off. This was a very loud blast well into the burnt area from the track where Kim’s crew was working. It caused lights in houses all along the slope to the west of Mundoolin Road to snap on suddenly as alarmed residents wondered what had happened. Subsequent inspection showed no obvious cause and our guess is that it was some unexploded ordinance left over from military use of the site many years ago.

The Alpha control line under the power lines was never breached. There were some minor breaches across the Goat Track which were dealt with by Tenix – the Army’s fire contractors. On Sunday morning the ICC caravan left. John (TM1) became the incident controller with Tony and Jenny in 52 being the mobile ICC. In the evening Tony and Manuel patrolled in 41. On Monday and Tuesday Tony organised patrols of the area in which John F took an active part at the end of a hose. The final patrol early on Tuesday morning showed that the burn had been an outstanding success and that the area was safe. This was reinforced by a change to an easterly and much more humid air stream which reduced the fire risk from High to Low. Thus the incident officially ended at 0815 on 14/8/07. We had a debrief during our Wednesday evening training session at which TM1 congratulated all firefighters on a job well done.

Posted in Incident Reports