As climate change increases the number of extreme fire danger days in Victoria, rural communities around the state are assessing current challenges, capabilities and lessons learned from bushfires past.
Key findings from a report by Australia’s Climate Council show that Victoria is on the frontline of increasing bushfire risk, including an increased number of extreme fire danger days.
For those who have lived in the bush their entire lives, the threat of bushfires is something they have grown up with but as the makeup of rural communities changes, emergency services are faced with added challenges.
Nestled in the foothills of the Brisbane Ranges, Anakie is approximately 60km west of Melbourne and home to around 600 people. The region has an extreme bushfire risk, as assessed by the CFA.
There are several key families in the Anakie district, but now new names are appearing among the Tuckers, Trotters and Gilletts.
“In the 30s, Anakie district was probably owned by seven or eight large squatters or graziers,” says 75 year old Ray Tucker. “[Now,] we’ve got a lot of people coming out from the towns wanting a change of life.”
Ray, who has been a member of the Anakie Fire Brigade since he was 15, says Anakie’s proximity to the national park attracts new residents.
However the change in demographic isn’t without its difficulties.
David Gillett is the Captain of the Anakie Fire Brigade and Deputy Group Officer of the Anakie Group, which includes some of Victoria’s fastest growing regional areas.
He says that new, sometimes temporary, residents can create a challenge for his team.
“You’ve got your core group of rural people and town people that are very long standing in the community,” David says. “Then you’ve got this revolving community, you’ve got this tree change group that come out for a lifestyle.”
The difficulty is that many will stay in the community for four or five years before deciding that rural life is not for them and returning to the city.
“We try and educate a group and then all of a sudden we’re finding that we’re doing the whole thing over again,” David explains.
Although some new residents are joining the brigade, numbers aren’t everything.
“You can train people but it’s a matter of the understanding,” David says. “I’ve been a member for 26 years, there are people here that have been members for 60 years, and you never stop learning.”
There is also the problem of availability.
“We’ve got 42 very good active members however that’s still an issue that during the week a lot of those members work out of the town,” he says. “It comes back to those core, probably half a dozen people that are here all the time.”
David says the core group is enough for an initial turnout but not enough for a major incident such as the fire that threatened the town in 2006, when all 42 members were required.
“We do have some good, young members coming along,” he says. “But it’s an ongoing issue, it never stops.”
David says there is still a threat from a large area of bush that didn’t burn in the 2006 fire which claimed seven local homes.
“We had about 600 acres of the bush burned out [in 2006] but there’s also a lot of area of the bush that didn’t burn,” he says. “And the area that didn’t burn is probably the most populated area of the bush so that’s still a very big threat and a very big worry to us.”
However, if a fire does start, the first person to see it is likely to be fire spotter Pat Howell.
Pat has a 360 degree view from the tower at the top of Mount Anakie, where he can be found on high fire danger days.
His role is to provide early response by liaising with other fire towers in the area to pinpoint fire locations using a system of grid references and strings.
“Quick response is the whole idea of having a fire spotter,” Pat says.
A piece of string fixed from the ceiling to a map on table in the middle of the room is used to line up bearings. Another map and string collection sits in the corner of the room.
This second map contains a grid reference and moveable strings representing the line of sight from each of the fire towers in the immediate area.
“If I was to see smoke out there at 355 degrees, I would line it up with that string line, that would give me the perfect angle from here,” Pat explains. “And the same would happen in another tower but here they’d have a different angle…[then] we would go to our maps and where the strings would cross is where the fire is.”
Pat adds that he has been able to put fire crews to within 100 metres of a smoke sighting without any bearings or references, just knowledge of the area.
“Just [from] working out on a map where it’s coming from and they’ve walked in and found it within 100 metres of where I’ve said,” he says.
A man who enjoys his own company, Pat says the job is a rewarding one.
“When you’ve actually spotted the smoke and you sit back and you see the quick response…that is satisfying because you know you’ve done your job because it didn’t get away and there was no damage done,” he says. “People like to know that I’m here but they don’t like to hear my voice.”
Memories of 2006
But sometimes the fires do get away; it was Pat who spotted the devastating fire in January 2006.
“It was horribly close to Australia Day 2006,” he says. “I was up here and I thought I saw a thunderstorm come through and I recorded lightning at 304 degrees…half hour later I saw a little thin bootlace of smoke coming up out of there. Reported that.”
Pat says it was only a very small column of smoke tucked away in the gullies but a heavy shower passed through soon after and the smoke disappeared.
“For all purposes and intentions, we thought the rain had put it out,” he says.
Two days later, at 11 o’clock in the morning, he looked out to see smoke coming from the exact location he had reported the smoke two days earlier.
That fire was controlled but the next day Pat spotted a second fire just to the south of it, at 302 degrees.
“It went up and it’s the one that done the damage,” he says. “It’s the one that come straight down through the Brisbane Ranges and out into the farm lands here down towards Anakie.”
Going back to his records of the lightning strike, Pat noted that he had reported a double hit.
“The first fire that went up was the one they got under control,” he says. “It was the second one from the second lightning, which was south of the first one, was the one that got away.”
Pat remained in the tower until late in the evening on the night the fire threatened the town.
“The fire was actually coming up the mountain and they sent a fixed wing plane to circle the mountain and by radio talked me down through [the fire], off the mountain to Staunton Vale,” he says. “But I was quite safe.”
Armed with water, his CFA uniform, boots and bolt cutters, Pat was confident with his evacuation plan.
“I wasn’t in any fear at all,” he says. “I was organised in case it came to the tower but it didn’t.”
2006 and beyond
Back in the town, David says what the team learned from 2006 has become part of their pre-incident planning.
“The number of tankers we need, the number of bulk water tankers we need, quickly get graders in there to try and get breaks in there,” he says. “The whole plan of how we got about protecting the town probably changed a little after ’06.”
Thanks to funds raised following the 2006 fires the brigade was able to purchase a command and control vehicle, a role which David had previously done in his private ute.
“It’s a vehicle that I will take as an incident controller or a sector commander,” he explains. “To actually do the incident control and manage the fire on the ground until it gets to a level where it needs to go to an incident control centre in town.”
As for next year’s ten year anniversary, David says they haven’t discussed that far yet but no doubt they will do something.
In the meantime, David keeping an eye on the remaining summer months.
“We’ve still got February and March to come and they’re traditionally the hottest parts of the year,” he says. “The bush is still very dry.”
Confident in his team, many of them members during 2006, David says most employers are understanding with people leaving work to lend a hand.
“We have got a good team and when they’re needed they’re there,” he says.