Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.

Hurry Up And Wait: Blacking Out the Heywood Complex Fires

Friday, December 20th - At the end of a day that had reached 114f around the town of Heywood in Victoria near the South Australia border, a thunderstorm rolled in. Relief from the heat was hardly to be appreciated for long, as lightning strikes soon ignited several (at least 13 of note) major wildfires in the surrounding area. Though the next day was 66f because of course it was, this is Victoria.

Monday, December 23rd, Christmas Eve - I had a meeting with my boss this morning. He was actually quite cheerful and friendly, but there was one thing we disagree about at this time of the year every year, time off. And it's the reverse of what you're probably thinking. To me this is a normal week I would rather work through. He thinks I should take days off. Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas a lot. I put a Christmas tree up for a whole month and all by myself continue the family tradition of sitting down by the tree to eat a few christmas cookies on various evenings as the big day approaches. But I do this in Winter, when Christmas should be. Christmas in summer feels to me nothing like Christmas. It's just a day like any other with the exception that everyone around you is reminding you that you have no family within nearly 8,000 miles. In years past friends have invited me over, which is very kind and in-the-christmas-spirit of them, but I find that just drives the point home even more and makes it even more sad. And so, I'd rather work and pretend it's not christmas. But here's my boss saying "I really think you should take these days off."
   And then the answer fell into my lap. A notification came up in the fire brigade pager app: "is anyone available for a strike team Dec 26th-28th?" Yes, yes I am. I responded that I was available and by the way if they need anyone Christmas Day sign me up for that too. No such luck on that though.

   This would be my first overnight fire brigade deployment. I wasn't quite sure what to pack. I decided to forgo any normal shirts since I'd be wearing firefighting gear, though this caused me to be just wearing a plain white undershirt whenever I wasn't wearing the fire jacket, which normally I would consider too undressed for public but when you've clearly just been fighting a fire I don't think people are judging.

December 26th - I drove to the nearby town of Colac, about fifteen minutes from where I live. I would be the only person joining from my own brigade but in Colac a tanker from the nearby town of Beeac and several members from the area met up around 08:30. We then proceeded 40 minutes further west to where the rest of Strike Team 0709 was forming up in the town of Camperdown. I actually road up with this dwarven shaped fellow Paul since he was driving his own car to Camperdown. He currently works for the CFA (Country Fire Brigade) as a safety officer, but because it's not actually his job to go out fighting fires on the strike teams he was using leave time to go as a volunteer. He had also recently been on some of the major fires up north in New South Wales so he had a lot of stories.
   In Camperdown I learned I would be assigned to the Timboon tanker. There was no one on the team from Timboon but we would be known as "Timboon" within the strike force nevertheless (nor did Beeac have anyone from Beeac on it). I was excited about this tanker though because it had a fun squirrel door between the cab and back (see above picture). Paul, it turns out, would be on this tanker with me. As well we had: Michael, a jovial and rather giant Danish fellow in his fifties; Max, our crew chief, an older fellow who didn't talk very much on the way in and I sort of assumed he'd be gruff but he was actually very nice; and Gavin, our driver, who had a kind of wild crazy looking goatie and laughing eyes and when he put his helmet on, which was rare since he was usually in the driver's seat (we don't wear helmets in the truck, apparently they can actually cause neck injuries if worn inside the vehicle??) I was surprised to note he had the red helmet of a brigade captain. Altogether our crew got along fantastically and they were all great.

   The other four trucks and one command vehicle that made up Strike Team 0709 actually came from further East (ie the direction we had just come from, ie further than us from the destination), including Geelong City and several Geelong suburbs. I think most of the other trucks did carry crews from their own location.

10:00ish - Strike Team 0709 headed out west as a convoy. Out to the coastal town of Warnambool and from there along the coast to the West. In the unlikely case that you recall my recent entry about driving to the Western coastal corner of Victoria we basically followed that same coastal route West of Warnambool, but without all the stops at viewpoints I had made.

12:30ish, Heywood - Heywood turned out to be a very small town but it had a DWELP (Department of Water and ... Forest Stuff) command center. Here we took on bags of snacks, were fed bacon and sausages, spent an hour or so waiting around, were finally briefed, and finally finally we headed out for the nearby Condah Fire east of town. Around 1:30 we finally began to see white smoke rising over the forest. The trucks lined up on a dirt road leading into this forest. To our right a bucolic field was full of hay bales, in front of us smoke rose in places among the forest. Where the dirt road led into the forest the forest was stained pink with fire retardant. People got out of the trucks as this was looking to be another wait. A small plane buzzed around over the fire , and presently a helicopter came and landed in the field just to our left. Two older guys in the green DWELP uniform walked out and boarded the helicopter, which then took off. I'm assuming it was giving some command staff an overhead look at things. After half an hour or so of waiting here we were told to mount up and the convoy continued on down a road running along the edge of the forest to the right. Every 100 meters so a truck was told to pull off and work that section. We were peeled off just beside a small pond and I was struck by how strongly it smelled of wild mint. It was actually very pretty, with the hay bales behind us, green grass around our feet with wild flowers and the smell of mint, and the nearby forest of tangley eucalyptus trees full of ominous smoke like some dark enchanted forest. The trees still had canopies of green leaves but the ground was black, volcanic rocks surrounded by smoking ash.
   We unrolled two hoses and set about attacking smoking hot spots. When one gets the water into a particularly hot spot it kind of roars at you and kicks up a lot of steam. Its very satisfying. The goal here would be to "black out" about 30 meters along the edge so that it can't spread to the unburned areas.

   After we expended our water, we headed to the water fill up point which was down the dirt road into the forest. The road was a a firebreak and the first had been prevented from crossing, so the forest was burned to the right but not the left. The pink fire retardant had been dropped along the road to help ensure the break. There were a number of old walls of piled volcanic stone the forest, which Maike, the Dane, said had been built by aboriginals as part of their traditional land management as detailed in a book he recommended, The Biggest Estate on Earth. We generally agreed this may have been true of some particularly old walls in low places, which apparently the aboriginals constructed to catch eels when the water levels rose enough to flood those places and then withdrew. As the walls were extensive though we suspected they may have been built by convict labor or, sadly, by the aboriginals at the nearby Aboriginal Mission possibly merely because white man said they better.
   Also of note, in the briefing we'd been told that this land was culturally sensitive aboriginal land.
   The water point turned out to be the former location of a bridge. As far as I can surmise this road used to lead over this bridge to the Aboriginal Mission, but now a modern road leads there from the far side and this road is only used for forest management purposes. Darlot Creek formed a clear pool here and little fish could be seen swimming in it. It was quite picturesque. The far bank was a lush stand of reeds, and from somewhere behind them a column of white smoke billowed.
   The trucks can suck water from water sources ("draughting") but it works better (is slightly less finnacky) to have as we had here, a portable pump set up to pump water up from the water into tankers as they came.

(trees covered in the fire retardant on the left and unaffected trees on the right)

   On our way back out of the forest we noted a lot of smoke rising just beside the road, including even some open flames, so we called in for and got permission to work on putting out these hot spots. We spent several hours and several tank-loads of water in this area. At one point an ambulance came hurrying along the bumpy dirt road, which we'd learn was to take away a young man from the Geelong City truck with severe abdominal pain. We were slightly unimpressed when around four we were brought (lunch? dinner? supper?) consisting of styrofoam boxes containing corned beef, potato salad, an asian style cold noodle salad, and no utinsels. We tried fasioning chopsticks of scrounged twigs but I've never been very good at eating with chopsticks. Paul was particularly flummoxed by this meal because he had already been complaining about the amount of corned beef he was fed while on strike teams in New South Wales (fun fact, they call corned beef "silverside" apparently). We eventually finished blacking out along the road, returned to our originally assigned location and finished blacking that out, and around 8:30. Everyone convened together in meadow for some reason labeled "phoschek weak" on the map and we were fed once again! This time it was roast chicken with vegetables (and utinsels), and I didn't think I'd be able to eat again so soon after the previous meal but I thoroughly devoured my portion. We received a daily debrief from one of the DWELP commanders and as we headed off into the golden twilight saw DWELP crew setting off into the forest on foot apparently to lay hoses for a grand sprinkler network.

21:30 Heywood Command - Back at the command center, the DWELP crews in green and CFA crews in yellow mainly ignored eachother. The DWELP crews appear to be mainly in their twenties, and possibly 30-40% female, while the average CFA age I think is about 50 and only one out of every 30 is female. The DWELP crews are clearly accustomed to hanging out at this facility and were casually sitting at tables in indoor spaces on either side of the open courtyard in which the CFA crews stood awkwardly about in. Getting a bit cold I went into one of the buildings when it seemed the DWELPERs had left but then they all came back and I felt awkward and went back to being cold outside. Meanwhile it was still undetermined where we would spend the night. Finally, after 22:00we were told we would be spending the night at the Aboriginal Mission. As this would be an alcohol free zone some people quickly went for beer and hurriedly put back a few.
   We mounted up and moved out and drove ten to fifteen minutes to some cabins on a hill overlooking the forest, which at night was just a dark expanse. Conveniently the capacity and number of little cabins was just right for each truck crew to have a cabin. We were issued sleeping bags and pillows, neither of which were ever collected, and a number of people later mentioning taking them home at the end. Apparently its logistically or economically unfeasible for CFA to reuse the sleeping bags? I didn't keep mine but after something like 4 out of 5 people I talked to said they did I rather wish I had. They were very decent sleeping bags.

Day 2, yesterday, December 27th
09:30 -
In the morning we packed up everything including the abovementioned sleeping bags since we didnt' know where we'd be spending the night, and headed down to the Heywood command center. There we were fed bacon and sausages and in the morning briefing we learned we would be headed west to the Mount Deception fire. This was about half an hour west of Heywood (the one due west of Heywood on the map at the top of this entry). The firegrounds in this case was deep in a thick forest of tall stringybark trees. They rose relatively straight from a forest floor covered in ferns, like the Forest Moon of Endor. The roads cut fairly straight through the forest, and like the day before generally the ground was blackened and smoking on one side of the road and we were putting water on hot spots. This proved to be a rather tedious day as it mainly consisted of connecting two or three hose lengths together, dragging them out to a hot spot, and then disconnecting and folding them up only to relocate 100 meters and do it all again. Over and over again. As the temperature reached around 100f.
   Someone from Geelong City truck was reportedly stung by a bee. As all medical incidents were originating from there truck people began to joke that they were unlucky and/or would have no one left by the end.

14:00 - Relatively early everything was feeling pretty well blacked out in our whole sector and we mustered up and headed back to Heywood Control. Here we learned we would spend the night in a tent city now being erected on the footy oval. Word about what we would do the following day kept changing but the last word before we left the command center and therefore most enduring was that they just needed us to monitor the pumps for this sprinkler system at the Condah Fire. Sounds dreadfully dull right, but we were told one team would have to hike in to their pump, one would take a fisheries boat across the lake, and one would be inserted by helicopter. This sparked general good natured arguments by everyone about why _they_ deserved to ride the helicopter (clearly its us because we have a CFA staff member to pull rank for us!)
   We each got out own tent in Tent City, and each came already set up with a cot ("stretcher" they call it here, which seems a bit creepy to me) and another sleeping bag! A lot of crewmembers immediately set about drinking either at the pub or at tent city, though they were later commended for no one getting embarrassingly drunk. I spent the afternoon sitting on the grass reading my kindle.

Day 3, today, December 28th
07:00 -
Last I heard before I turned in at 22:00 was that we were rolling out at 08:30 so I thought I was getting up early at 07:00 only to find I was one of the last up! Apparently word of a changed muster time hadn't reached me. We headed in to the command center and were informed plans had changed again, and we'd be headed to the Hotspur Fire. We were excited because this one wasn't under control yet, maybe we'd do more than just blacking out! We mounted up around 09:00 and headed about half an hour northwest to the Hotspur station, which consisted of a large garage (the fire station) and a building I thought was an abandoned building (the town hall) in a large field surrounded by forest. Here a private catering company called "rapid relief team" or some such was set up making breakfast (bacon, sausages, and a tomatoe stew apparently to be poured over the bread one puts the bacon on. Must be an Australian thing). The three guys working there looked creepily similar. Almost certainly family, possibly three brothers and a father, but the fact that they all had the same thick black rimmed glasses and the same haircut made it seem a bit much and kind of creepy. At some point Gavin, our driver, looked at his phone and said "guys I have bad news, Hotspur Fire is now listed as contained."

10:00ish - After much waiting around here we finally mounted up and headed into the forest to the front lines. We found the blackened areas to be smoking much more heavily than the previous fires. At the frontline control point we found many bulldozers, the usual DWELP crew and staff in green, and some crews in a strange blue uniform with mostly-white trucks. Turns out they're the crews of the tree plantation companies. A massive DWELP unimog fire truck presently rolled in and was greatly admired by us. "Hurry up and wait!" was grumbled numerous times.
   Finally at nearly 11 we were deployed to once again douse out hot spots. They were very plentiful so there wasn't that setting up a hose to take care of one spot and then move it thing. At one point while I was at the end of a hoselength into the bush (so about 25 meters) Max, our crewleader, who happened to be near me, pointed out the smoke thickening into nearly a wall of smoke just a little further in and advised me that humidity was dropping and we'd have to be careful not to be caught in the bush if it all goes up.
   After about an hour we had to go refill our watertank at a nearby creek and just as we were finishing we were told we'd be pulling out and headed home. After only an hour on the line today! General consensus of the grumbles is tha we should have spent more time here and less time in Mt Deception. We rolled back down to the Hotspur Station for lunch (chicken burgers) and another hour of standing around, then back to the Heywood Command Center where we washed the trucks and spent another 30-40 minutes before heading back to Camperdown.
   About halfway there the whole convoy stopped at a pub where people from many of the trucks went in to load up on beer. The consensus on my truck was that "this if the first decision the strike team commander has made that I don't agree with ... it's a bad look for someone to see an entire strike team loading up on beer in the middle of the day."

16:30 - Parked along the long grassy "avenue of honor" in Camperdown, the commanders made little speeches about how we'd made them proud, goodbyes were said, and Strike Team 0709 split up and we went our separate ways.

Tags: fire brigade

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