by John Robertson
On Tuesday a call from Ewan Cayzar sent Robbo off to Rocky and a similar call sent Rory to Townsville on Wednesday. In both cases the deployment was over six days. This report is about Rocky but Rory will have had parallel experiences in Townsville
A team of 14 people came together at Chambers Flat RFB at 1300 on Tuesday and set off by bus to catch a plane from Brisbane to Rocky. Members of six different brigades came from as far away as Gatton. Five were from the Mt Alford RFB which was a remarkable presence for quite a small unit. Our team leader was Wayne Cook, (Cookie), T1. Familiar QFRS faces along the way included Tony Woods, Kaye Healing and Bernie Trembath.
On arrival in Rocky we were briefed by the Area Director, John Fisher. He told us that the fires had been going since 24th June and now covered around 10,000 hectares. Conditions were very dry (a humidity as low as 1% was mentioned) and there was a mass of long grass left over from the summer growth. Most fires were confidently attributed to arson and were being lit a considerable distance apart so as to threaten houses and oblige fire crews to leave one job unfinished to attend to an urgent call elsewhere. One of our jobs was to give local crews a short break.
Based in a very comfortable local motel we divided into a day crew of 8 (led by Cookie) and a night crew of 6 (led by Barry of QFRS). Our trucks were those of local crews who were getting some much needed rest. Most of the trucks were mediums – Robbo, for example, used Cooberrie 52, Belmont 51, Baldercombe 52, and Hidden Valley 41. Usually there was a crew of 2. Mostly Robbo worked with Paul Gillett of Mt Alford RFB. Paul is a determined and skilled rural firefighter and is so keen that he bought his own personal Protek, took it with him to Rocky and used it on the fires. The trucks did not carry layflats or pocket radios.
As the night crew, we got going almost on arrival at 1800. However, the local arsonist was quiet and our role was merely to monitor contained fires and get to know some of the tracks. The ground is steep, volcanic, crumbly and rock strewn – very similar to Tamborine Mountain. In theory the shifts were 7 to 7 but it seldom worked out that way. About 1300 on Wednesday Robbo’s crew (in theory, asleep) got an urgent message from Kaye Healing to come and help with fire threatening houses. This we did and were in middle of the action close to houses, horses and other animals shown in some of the photos. Thursday brought more of the same with another early start. It also brought Robbo chainsaw work during the late hours.
On Friday we almost worked our scheduled hours and did a lot of conventional blacking out, 20 or 30 metres in from the control line. It seemed that we had the fire licked and after breakfast back at the motel we went to bed thinking that we had an easy run till it was time to go home. We had reckoned without the arsonist! About lunchtime the day crew came upon a fire which has been started very recently but which was already beyond the stage of being quickly extinguished. The night crew was called to help with backburning and blacking out
The backburning was a sight to behold. Imperturbable Cookie looked quite startled when the flames in an upslope section he had just lit were 10 metres high within a minute of applying the drip torch. Nevertheless it all been carefully planned, skilfully carried out and went remarkably well. Continuous monitoring in Hidden Valley 41 by Robbo and James (son of Tony Woods) showed that the control line was holding well and all that was required was to extinguish remnant logs and the like.
We finished at about 0300 on Sunday, made our way back to the motel where ‘dinner’ was there for us. Then some sleep, to the airport at 1130, thence to Brisbane airport and by bus to Chambers Flat for part the team and to Gatton for the other part. We left behind a much diminished fire – albeit with the arsonist still on the loose – and local crews who had some respite. In short; ‘we did good’. We were welcomed and thanked by all concerned and that was greatly appreciated by our team. The QFRS arrangements were first rate – especially given the quick reaction often required by unfolding events. The Dreamtime motel was hospitality itself.
Reflecting on the experience, the thing stands out for me was the way each member of each of the (small) crews did just the right thing, seemingly by instinct, at the right moment in often difficult and sometimes hazardous circumstances. This happened without radio comms, let alone orders. It was exhilarating to be a part of it. After our return all team members got the following email from our QFRS officer and night shift leader, Barry Heilbronn.
Just a quick thanks to you all for the efforts at Bouldercombe/Mount Morgan.Andrew Allan and I were charged with your overall safety and welfare and, I must say, you all made it easy for us. You were all very professional in your approach and treated the job as if it was in your own area. I hope that the experience enabled you to share knowledge and experiences and perhaps to forge new friendships.
Regards Barry Heilbronn