Experiences of a novice crew member of Rivers Tanker 1-1 on Saturday 18 Jan.
I joined the Rivers Brigade during September 02 and had completed my basic training by October. I has my first real operational exposure during the proceeding week of the fires when I was crewing a Light Tanker on an overnight shift in the Brindabellas. That night, I took part in back burning operations and the protection of Priors Hut. At the time, after experiencing significant heat, smoke and flames and the most surreal dawn, I thought I was blooded as a fire fighter.
I was at the Rivers shed at 6:00 am on the Saturday. It became quickly apparent that we wouldn’t be going up to the mountains that day but would be involved in property protection as the weather conditions deteriorated. We started the day patrolling the Kambah Pool road and watched in fascination as the day began to turn to dark. The radio traffic began to increase and we heard our brother Rivers Tanker unit, Rivers 1-0 going into action at the “Huntley” property on Uriarra Road. Shortly after that, we were summons to go to “Huntley” to assist.
As we sped to “Huntley” with sirens and lights flashing, we put on our jackets, face masks, helmets and goggles. I felt a degree of apprehension in my stomach but was surprised how clear headed I felt. On route, we were diverted to the “Winslade” property on Cotter road. The sky continued to darken and the wind continued to pick up. On arrival, we spoke with the property owner and then proceed to a back paddock where we first witnessed the inferno burning in the Cotter valley. A grass fire quickly came racing over the hills and three of us got on the back of the truck and manned the cannon and one of the live reels. While the truck was moving along the edge of the flames, we did our best in putting it out. At some stage we were dampened from above so we can only assume we were water bombed, but I certainly couldn’t hear anything. My thanks to the pilot, it reassured me that we were not alone. Shortly after, the truck was surrounded by flames so we scampered into the truck cabin and drove onto a burnt out area. In the truck, as we gulped down as much water as we could, I think I could recognise that I was going through a period of sensory overload.
There was no time to regroup, as soon as we could, we headed back to the homestead and prepared our defences. The property owners were doing what they could to wet down as much as possible. We had enough time to refill our tanker with water from a hydrant on Cotter Road. We placed the truck in a safe position and spread ourselves in a line with hoses in the direction we knew the flames would come from. At one stage, I looked over my shoulder and saw a bull standing 5 metres from me. I quickly negotiated a truce with it and we agreed that he wouldn’t charge at me.
It was like an old Cowboys and Indians film; as I looked through the windstorm, I could see a line of red approaching at incredible speed. We scurried back to the truck and sheltered near its front corner with our hoses going. I can remember thinking “I wish I had a bigger hose!”. As the flames raced by, we chased after them and I am so happy to say that we saved the place. While we were mopping up, I heard the thump thump thump of a helicopter rotor blade. Through the swirling black clouds, the South-Care helicopter appeared above hovering just above the tree-tops. I looked up to see a couple of faces peering down at me from above. I guess I should have waved at them. Again, it was such a surreal image that is burned forever into my memory. Part of me wished that the helicopter would land and take me anywhere else. At another moment, I turned around and found two soot covered wallabies sitting next to me. In times of such crisis, it seems the animal kingdom does forget its natural aversion to mankind.
We then heard that our Brigade depot was under attack. At that stage, I could not comprehend that what had passed over and around us was en route for Canberra. By the time we could get to the shed, all but 3 of the cars of the members who were out fighting fires had been destroyed, including most of our crew’s. The actual shed was ok but the power pole was on fire. We doused the remaining fires that might threaten the shed, filled up with water and headed off to Kambah.
The magnitude of what was happening to Canberra began to set in as we drove down the closed, flame enshrouded Parkway to Tuggeranong. On arrival at Kambah, it was just a matter of doing what we could do and where we could do it. It was heart breaking to see so many houses destroyed. We later moved to the Chapman/Duffy/Holder area, many others with better word skills than me will no doubt describe the devastation that was there. There was not much left to do there.
We finally got to the staging area at Curtin after 9:00 pm, exhausted, bewildered and blackened. We found out some of our brigade members had been injured and some had suffered property losses. Getting home later, after several beers and several large whiskeys, it was impossible to sleep. I had absolutely no concept of time during that day.
To the crew of Rivers 1-1: Tony Hill, Deputy Captain Rivers Brigade, crew leader and driver; crew members: Nicole King, Stephen Robey and Gerard Thrift - champions, the lot of you, you made feel as safe as anyone could possibly feel on such a day.
To Matt Dutkiewicz, Deputy Captain and Training Officer who suffered great personal loss on the day; thank you for your diligence in your training of us newbies.. It paid dividends for me on the Saturday. Thanks to Captain Simon Katz who has just been continually on the go. To the rest of the Rivers Brigade, it has been truly magnificent to watch the way in which you have supported one another. It has also been a privilege to be part of a Canberra community that has responded so superbly to the tragedy.