Reflections of a horror fire season

Reflections of a horror fire season

Orbost was lucky to escape the unprecedented bushfires, which rocked East Gippsland to the core on December 30 and into January.

Six months on, and amid grappling with further drought and COVID-19, including a recent outbreak in the area, Orbost is still trying to get back to its feet.

Orbost CFA Captain, Dick Johnstone, who has been in the brigade for 40 years, has now had time to reflect on a tumultuous summer. He says lessons should be learned for government departments, while praising brigade members, young and old, for their unwavering commitment and incredible work in the face of what was, put simply, a firestorm.

Cpt Johnstone said a number of factors made the most recent blazes some of the worst he had seen.

“It was more intense, it was tougher because it was one of the drier, longer periods we’ve had for a long time,” he said.

“We’ve had less rainfall for probably the past four years, where that probably hasn’t happened over the past 30 or 40 years, and that certainly extended to some of the problems we faced because the fuel load was so big.

“We knew we were in for a tough one unless we had rain.”

The fast-moving blaze had the community on high alert and Cpt Johnstone said had it not been for a change in wind direction, the threat would have been a lot more significant.

“The Goongerah fire, the fire that come over from Jacksons Crossing about six years ago, that was going to present a big problem but the wind changed at about 10 to 3 in the afternoon and pushed the fire away from us,” he said.

“The wind has been pretty good to us in these big fires over the years.

“What you’ve got to look at is how quick they come at the town and how hard they come. You look at Jacksons in 2014 and you look at the Goongerah fire that burnt 76,000 hectares in about 78 days, this Jacksons fire on a Sunday morning burnt 28,000 hectares in five hours – they’re the fires that get a bit scary because they’re coming hard, they’re coming fast and you just don’t know where they will pop out.

“That was in the day time; you can manage it better in the day time, it’s a lot harder at night time with rough terrain and what not.”

Orbost firefighters were in action by lunch time on December 30.

“At about 1.45pm when the first call came in, it went all dark and the embers came in, the wind had blown south-westerly to put it back on itself,” Cpt Johnstone said.

“We came back into town and we had fires about 300 metres from houses, you start to think have I got enough trucks here, how many more attacks are we going to get, because once you start coming you don’t know where they’re going to be.

“You might be the best prepared, until it happens you can be underprepared.

“I thought we were pretty good at what we had and what we did.

“All up we would’ve had 35 firefighters.

“We knew it was coming towards town, it was the unknown how far it would come. I was pretty confident it was going to stick to the outskirts a bit, but the ember attack was always going to be problem.

“It did come into town and it did start some fires, but luckily we had some spare trucks. I said all along we would place trucks in and around the town area, but how much we could save and do in outskirts is pretty limited, especially at 2am.

“We honestly thought if the fire jumps the river and keeps coming that we’re going to have a very large fire. That was always in the back of our minds. If the wind kept coming, we weren’t going to stop it and it would’ve got into town somewhere along the line.”

Having survived the December 30 attack relatively unscathed, Cpt Johnstone was confident the Orbost township had avoided disaster.

“New Year’s Eve, it wasn’t so bad, even know they asked as to evacuate, which I disagreed with, was because the main fire had already come from the north and there was nothing more to burn,” he said.

“It was going to be flare ups that caused us issues and that’s what we had – we had 13 fires on New Year’s Day, all through re-lights. There wasn’t going to be great big bushfire come at us again, not from that northern direction.”

A LONG SHIFT

“Just before the fires here I went to Sydney for five days in November to fight fires at Kempsey and when I got home the fires started here,” Cpt Johnstone said.

“I think I did 41 days straight with all the lead up, preparing for the fires and then fighting them – all while trying to run a business. It was full on.

“We absorbed it as we went because of how it was happening. It was probably the first time in a lot of years, especially in my time, that the whole town was being involved in evacuations, which had a few issues.

“There were some issues with it (the messaging) and it’s something we’ll learn from and if it is to happen again I certainly believe we’ll be doing things a lot different.”

Cpt Johnstone praised his fellow brigade members for their commitment during a testing time, making particular note of the effort of the youngest firefighters.

“We had four younger firefighters that have only been with us a couple of years,” he said.

“Certainly being so young and inexperienced it can be pretty frightening and they don’t come much faster and harder than this one did, so it would’ve been scary, no doubt.

“It certainly didn’t scare them off, in fact it probably encouraged more people to show interest. People were praising them and they probably thought they’ve done a really good thing for the town.

“That sort of thing will keep them there because they feel they’ve done a good job and they have, I believe everyone put in the effort when we needed them. They were unbelievable.

“In the fire period we did 97 jobs. Normally if you do 100 jobs in a year you’re doing well, but we did 97 in eight weeks – that’s a lot of work for a small amount of people.

“It’s been a tough year but we’ve still got our town – that’s the main thing.”

IMAGE: Orbost CFA Captain, Dick Johnstone. (PS)


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