Freemasonry is
What it means to be an RFS volunteer

So, when did the 2019/20 Bush Fire Season in NSW start? It’s hard to recall now after so many calls to action, and my head is as hazy as the smoke-filled atmosphere of NSW as I write.

I recall having just arrived at our daughter’s place in Lawrence, on the River Clarence on 9th August, and my close friend from Buxton (South West of Campbelltown) ringing to ask, tongue in cheek, if I would like him to call around to my home in Buxton and bring my “ready to go” firefighting travel kit, as he was being deployed on the 11th to Casino NSW. I graciously declined his offer, stating that babysitting grandchildren was my priority at that point.

Back in Buxton and in early September, I put the already packed firefighting kit to use and went to Tenterfield as part of the Southern Highlands Strike Team to the Dukes Forest fire; a day’s travel each way and three days on the ground. After my 5 days and a seven-day rest I again volunteered to go to Casino for another five days and shortly thereafter returned to the Glen Innes area for the Bees Nest fires. Back to Buxton where the Mount Gosper fire, which had been burning for several weeks on the escarpments above Newnes, was now escalating in an easterly direction. I travelled between the starting point of Wilberforce Fire Control Centre and various northern, western and eastern boundaries for a seven-day response period. Finally, home for a rest and thinking what an early explosive fire season we were having and of how volatile the fuel was at each fire complex. The common theme was how the fire behaviour did not align with what we should expect from the weather on any given day and the estimated fuel loading.

By now it was the middle of November and the smoke was really starting to clog up the wheels in my head, so the date (and the atmosphere) was hazy. However, we now had a fire west of Buxton, in the Blue Mountains National Park, south west of the old Yerranderie mining village. This was the Square Mountain fire and was caused by lightning from an electrical storm. Over the course of the following week, the Square Mountain fire was contained. However during that week several other fires were ignited from the same cause, e.g. The Peaks fire, Ruined Castle fire, and the Green Wattle Creek fire so over the next couple of weeks, I experienced the daily ritual of travelling over 2 hours out to the fire ground and then battling high temperatures and extremely low moisture content fuel, with winds building each day in excess of 40 km/h. On one particular evening, the fire encircled our firefighting team on a large scale, which meant that we had to wait for the fire activity to subside and then detailed a forward qualified crew that was able to cut away fallen, fire affected trees from the fire trail, enabling 25 fire vehicles (over 100 personnel) to travel out to our respective base stations. The following day we returned to strengthen containment lines at a fall back point within 10 km to the west of the Wollondilly River, however, due to the sporadic westerly winds, high temperatures and dry fuel content, the fire unceremoniously chased us out from the Burragorang Valley and later that day crossed the Wollondilly River and Burragorang (Warragamba Dam) in two places. The northern breach running the fire up toward Nattai and Oakdale and the southern point crossing adjacent to the village of Lakesland. While the northern breach caused immediate damage on the villages of Oakdale, Orangeville and Silverdale with major property losses, this part of the fire re-crossed Warragamba Dam and continued to burn on the southern side of the Great Western Highway and is labelled the Erskine fire.

The southern breach fire activity had quietened down and was not posing any great threat to property or life and a strategic plan was put together to use current fire trails linked by bulldozer lines wherever possible from Oakdale to Wombeyan Caves, basically along the perimeter of the Blue Mountains National Park, a massive undertaking to say the least.

On 9 December, I was given the task to oversee the implementation of the strategic fall back line from Sheehy’s Creek Road, Oakdale, through to a point between the two villages of Buxton and Balmoral, a distance of between 30-40km with a time frame of less than 48 hours (it actually took 72 hours to complete). Owing to the ongoing progression eastward of the Green Wattle fire front, toward the villages of Lakesland, Thirlmere, Buxton and Balmoral, a direction to begin a strategic back burn was implemented at 6.00pm on 11 December, commencing at Sheehy’s Creek Road and continuing through to the southern end of Buxton. On 14 December, once again our fickle fire conditions came into play and caused erratic and volatile fire behaviour, causing major concerns and a rethink of the current strategies. However, the main fire front was still proceeding east and again on 14th December we faced some of the hardest battles of this mega fire and on that day lost approximately 20 houses and hundreds of outbuildings near the villages of Buxton, Balmoral and Bargo and the crushing blow of losing two young firefighters from the Cumberland District in a most unfortunate accident, involving their water tanker and a falling tree on the outskirts of Buxton. On 21 December another fire front emerged yet again, from the Green Wattle Creek main fire, causing another loss of about 15 houses from Balmoral and Hilltop Villages. The long campaign at this stage was far from over, with prevailing winds now predominately from the north east and pushing the southern fire boundaries towards the areas of Colo Vale, High Range, Bullio and Wombeyan Caves.

Finally, having fulfilled my Divisional Commander duties for the South Eastern portion of this Green Wattle Creek fire, I have been able to return to my normal volunteering role as crew leader on the Buxton Brigade and travel each day to the Bullio area, and even out to Taralga, where the now most south western edge of this fire has crossed the Wollondilly River in a southerly direction. Now with the added impact of the Moreton fire coming into our area near Exeter, Bundanoon, Penrose and Wingello we are being stretched just that little bit more.

It is fair to say that, “Yes, since mid-November and up until the time of writing this on 16 January, I haven’t been home much at all.”

As I said to my family, “I would never forgive myself for not participating in trying to help those in need, when and where I can be of assistance. I am so thankful of a very accepting and understanding family.”

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2010, pages 22 and 23.


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