December 19, 2015
“DON’T you worry, love. That’s what we’re here for.”
I’d just asked Lieutenant Phil Ruby whether my place could be saved.
I could see the flames coming through Tank Hill conservation reserve. I knew how much flammable material there was in there. For years we’ve been trying to get controlled burns.
The fire, which started in Tank Hill, had been travelling south, driven by strong northerlies. Cape Paterson and Harmers Haven were on alert.
There were some 50 fire crews from the CFA and Parks Victoria, two helicopters and numerous small planes flying overhead.
The families on the south side were shifting horses, dogs and themselves, and getting ready to evacuate themselves.
My neighbours and I were not in the firing line. And then suddenly the wind swung east and my place, on the eastern edge of the reserve, was in danger.
I grabbed some things, threw them in the car and parked it across the road. I tried to catch the cat but she absconded.
For 20 minutes I vainly hosed my “fire-resistant” timber verandah watching the flames approaching through the bush.
I didn’t think my life was in danger – I knew I could get away – but I did think my house was a goner, for all its high fire rating and fire-resistant timber verandah.
As I hosed it I was thinking of how sad I would be when I lost my house and the beautiful stand of bush beside it that we’ve all worked so hard to revegetate over many years. The view of the bush from my bedroom window is pure McCubbin.
In the middle of my advance mourning, Lieutenant Ruby and his fellow fireys from Kilkunda CFA turned up.
“What are the chances of saving this place?” I asked the man in the lieutenant’s helmet, expecting the worst.
“Don’t worry, love. That’s what we’re here for.”
I almost burst into tears. That fire truck and line of yellow-clad men was immensely reassuring. They went about their work with the calm authority of people who know what they’re doing, while a very skilled helicopter pilot did magnificent work flying low over the fire front.
I saw crews from Kilcunda, Wonthaggi, Foster, Edithvale, Ruby, Carrum Downs, Dalyston. I saw our own councillor, Neil Rankine, with the Dalyston fire brigade. “I didn’t realise how out of condition I was,” Neil remarked.
As the danger receded, Phil and Norm Burne, another Kilcunda firey, took a breather on my verandah. Phil’s a 25-year CFA veteran, Norm about 10. I asked Norm, a mature gentleman, what had made him join.
“I thought if my house was burning down, I’d like someone to save it,” he said. “So I figured I should do the same in return.”
As I write this at 5pm, the immediate threat has passed but our bush is still smouldering and there are still fire engines in the street. Some of the crews have been on the job for close to six hours.
There are lots of lessons in all this, especially with a fire bug loose in our area. I’ll probably forget most of them over time, but the one I will never forget is how much I owe Phil and all the other volunteers who turned out today in such dire conditions.
Thanks mate. I owe you.
Postscript: Sunday, December 20
At a CFA briefing at the Wonthaggi Workmen's Club last night, residents were told the fire had been deliberately lit. The police have set up a crime scene where the fire started.
Fire crews from Wonthaggi patrolled Tank Hill all last night, putting out spot fires. Parks Victoria staff worked all Sunday until the rains came.
About a quarter of the 13-acre reserve was burnt. The eucalypts and grass trees will come back better than ever, but who knows whether the tree ferns and coral ferns in the depths of the valley will ever return.
As for the McCubbin view from my bedroom window, it survived intact.
Did today's fire affect you? Tell us your experience.
December 26, 2015
I am so glad you and yours are safe, Catherine. It was a shock to see your warning on line. Your descriptions are so shocking and bring it home again how dangerous fire can be to us and our environment, living in the regions.
Though a long time ago, every time there is a high fire danger day with hot north winds I am acutely reminded what it is like to be the minister responsible for fire on public land in Victoria. Those summers and the dangers from fire while I was Minister for Conservation Forests and Lands in the early `90s will never really leave me. There is a certain feeling we are all aware of in the air. Victoria was lucky during that time as there were few fires and no lives and houses lost during my time. I met many wonderful competent people in the CFA, people giving up their time to come together and learn and apply those skills to keeping others safe.
The department management and staff were also highly skilled and trained to fight fires on public land in our national parks and reserves.
I want to pay tribute to the guts CFA and Department people show in fighting fires. They must primarily consider their own safety, but they make judgements that leads to very brave deeds. Thank you, fireys all over Victoria for your commitment, courage and skills.
Kay Setches, Surf Beach
Kay Setches was Minister for Conservation, Forests and Land in the Cain/Kirner Labor Government from 1988-90.
December 22, 2015
the line of fire, so to speak. As a very nearby resident, we felt the terrible fear of the fire so close by. The first we knew about it was when we heard the sirens coming ever closer finally spotting some smoke and our worst fears were realised.
We were just so lucky that the wind had turned by the time the fire got worse and had blown the fire in another direction, and that the wind did not turn back on us until the fire was controlled.
It is at times like these that we realise that we should ALL have a fire plan, no matter how unlikely it may seem, bad things do happen, as we discovered on Saturday afternoon. We can only be grateful for the efforts of the wonderful CFA, who were right on the ball with this one and thanks to their quick and sustained action, this fire was controlled relatively quickly.
There were two major problems that were highlighted by this fire.
1. We got no notifications for quite a long time after the fire had started and that was only via the Fire Ready App on our phones. I understand that messages were sent to nearby residents, but only to those who are connected to the Wonthaggi mobile tower. This is a very bad mistake as people in our vicinity (the fire area) rarely get reception from the Wonthaggi tower, due to the hill in between. All our personal mobile phone calls and messages are relayed via the Cape Paterson mobile tower when we are at home as we have no reception at all from the Wonthaggi tower at our home. This problem is something that was made known to the authorities at the community meeting on Saturday night, but perhaps some wider understanding of that would make us safer at another time if messages are required on this side of town.
2. Our street was not blocked off by the authorities during the fire danger and therefore every man and his dog came driving down the road, hopping out of the cars and walking along to see if they could see the fire. This meant that at times, we would have been unable to escape due to the amount of traffic that was coming down or parking to have a sticky beak. One man actually parked in the middle of the road (well it is a dead end…..right!) and took his kids out of the car and left the car in the road and walked off. At that time we would have had no way to escape had it come to that point.
Whilst the fire did not actually burn a large area, it still had the potential to become so much bigger and more dangerous to life and property, with 43 degree temperature, strong winds and plenty of very dry fuel in the surrounding areas.
I cannot praise the CFA enough for their quick and wonderful response. The firefighters, the support staff, the helicopter and plane pilots and crew did a magnificent job and the outcome could have been so much worse. They threw everything they had at it and I think we can call it a victory.
Our thanks seem inadequate for the hard, dirty, uncomfortable and dangerous work that the CFA do, but our thanks are given from the bottom of our hearts.
Coral Jones, Wonthaggi
Thank you for taking the time to tell us your heartfelt story and how it in itself tells a bigger story. This is one of everyday people committing a part of their own lives to protect others. The hottest, worst days to even be outside are the days fire brigade volunteers don heavy protective clothing and gear and get to work.
As it happened my own family of 7 siblings, partners and children (27 in all plus 2 dogs) had gathered on Saturday at lunchtime in Cape Paterson, for the annual McLoughlin family get together.
One sister and family had been through the Black Saturday fires, had survived and their house had been saved, but had been quite traumatised by what might have happened. So when the advice from ABC radio came through that Cape Paterson was at risk and evacuation was recommended, their reaction mirrored their feelings after the Black Saturday that they would not stay next time to defend their place. It was about primarily preserving life.
So we packed the eskies with the food for 27 people , paper plates in case we had a chance to eat, presents for all the younger family members and the two dogs, and headed as advised to Inverloch.
All ended well, we were not impacted by the fire and around 3pm sat on steps, stools and chairs in Kilcunda to enjoy 2016 Xmas dinner. The pudding celebration was a casuality, put in the fridge at the last minute before we left the Cape, it remains on hold till the next gathering of the McLoughlin clan.
A number of close family members have been volunteers and permanent officers in the fire service. They never seem to consider the personal hardship the job entails, the focus is always on their job, to protect the rest of us when we really need their help.
Mary Whelan, Cowes
December 20, 2015
I am so glad to read that you and your haven survived such a frightening day. It must have been a nightmare when the wind changed and you became part of the story. You capture all the emotions and moments of any given issue and so brave of you to keep it going in such a stressful time.
I hope the change comes very soon today and you are able to relax on the deck with your cat and a chilled glass of wine.
I know how frightening fires are, I have been through two major ones when I lived in the Dandenongs. I am sure Lieutenant Phil Ruby’s reassurance would have been very comforting. Take care.
Just thanks. I was able to forward your story to family and friends who had called me in the thick of it yesterday to see if all was well. Grateful to the fire crews and to your Post updates. So glad you're safe.
Linda Gordon, Wonthaggi
December 19, 2015
I would like to sincerely thank you, both for the tribute you have paid to the local fireys, and for your selflessness in taking the time to send a warning message to Bass Coast Post readers. I think we are so often too bound up in our own immediate disasters to realise that we do, in fact, have time to warn others - and maybe to save homes, or even lives. It is that call, that text, that email reaching out across the smoke, the floodwaters or the darkness, making contact, forming community.
The fire affected us in that my sister and brother in law as well as friends and all the other people, their houses and animals and their houses and trees were threatened.
The first I heard of it was when an email appeared on my screen from Catherine; the BCP. I immediately rang several people in the area under threat, some of them knew of the threat and some did not. I insisted that they must leave ten minutes ago.
I had not realised that Catherine and her house was under threat. I join Catherine in giving gratitude to the generous people who give their time and energy to save others' life and property out of the goodness of their hearts.
We smelled the smoke up in the Glen Forbes hills. I know I shouldn't, but I did feel more urgency more anguish when the fire affected my friends, my neighbourhood rather
than a distant place.
Felicia Di Stefano
Glad you’re ok. Is the cat back?
(Editor's note: Yes - at dinner time! Mother Hen and four chickens also survived the day.)
Thanks goodness for the 'fireys'! Tust you and the house are now safe.
Great reflection on your far too close experience this arvo! Glad to hear you and yours are safe.
Catherine, thank you for your generous and poignant piece about the threat from today's fire. You've shown our fire-ees in a true light for their business-like hard work and determination that makes them all our heroes ... Thanks to each and every one of them for putting themselves on the line for us. Best of the season, peace health and happiness to all.
We hope all will be OK for you and everyone else in the fire area. Yes the fireys are a special breed of volunteers we should all be thankful for.
One of your many Bass Coast Post readers.
I'm so glad you are all safe, very distressing for you all. Great work from our CFA members.
Clare Le Serve
They are Heroes. Scarey stuff! Keep safe.
A beautiful thank you Catherine. So glad your home is ok. And in between all this, you still managed to send out a post warning your readers. So thank you!
Hear hear! Reminds me of (half of) that Orwellian quote about the army: "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night....."
Hope you and Charlie are better than "OK".
Fantastic article written from the heart and so much emotion … absolutely incredible. The CFA volunteers who give so freely of their time not only fighting but attending hours of training to equip them for their volunteer role, are absolutely amazing. A lot of people work within their community working tirelessly but the CFA volunteers take so many risks.
Thank you for your calm reassurance and for saving Catherine's place too.
What a harrowing day for u Catherine. I hope u can breathe easier today. Bravo 4 your strong heartfelt piece.