Kinglake Bushfire Rescue 7th Feb 2009
This is an account of a fire call attended by the Wonga Park Pumper Tanker on 7th Feb 2009.
The crew consisted of Tim Cochrane ( Firefighter ), Rhys Doughty-Cowell (Firefighter), Andy Oxley (Firefighter), Luke Thomas (Driver) and Andrew Wright (Crew Leader).
CFA meetings convened on the eve of the 7th Feb reported forecast weather conditions of 46°C (115° F) temperature, 100kp/h (60 MPH) winds and 6% humidity. The previous week had three consecutive days with the temperature above 43 °C (109 °F).
Wonga Park is a volunteer fire brigade and is usually not manned, however, due to the extreme fire conditions forecast; it was decided to man the fire station from 1100 on Sat. 7th Feb.
The Wonga Park Pumper Tanker has a crew of five, the crew leader and driver in the cabin and three fire fighters in an open section on the back.
Crews were organised in advance and trucks were stowed with water, sports drinks and ice.
Mid-afternoon we heard on the CFA radio that there was a fire to the north of Wonga Park in Kilmore. Returning from a local incident, we could see a huge smoke column building in the north. Smoke was drifting into the Yarra Valley.
Mid afternoon at Healesville. Smoke from
the Kilmore fire shadows the waiting Fire Trucks. Our other truck,
the Wonga Park Tanker is in the foreground. It was later heavily
evolved in the fire fight around Yarra Glen. The Murrindindi fire is
visible in the background. These two fires later combined. 121 people
were killed by the Kilmore fire and 38 people were killed by the
Photo – Don Gathercole
At 1710, along with three trucks from other brigades, we received a pager message (see below) to attend a grass fire at Marshalls Road, St Andrews. Travelling along Butterman’s Track we had a good view of a massive fire front moving parallel to the road and heading towards Steels Creek. See the Google Map path of Pumper Tanker at the bottom of the page.
At Marshalls Road we were the only appliance on scene. We heard no radio traffic from the other three trucks. The radio channels we were monitoring were heavily congested. We assessed the location as not safe as we were approximately 2km downwind of the fire and surrounded by bush. We left immediately and headed closest fire station, Panton Hill.
We heard an urgent radio transmission for any appliance to assist at a car fire. After hearing the request, we came across the car fire around the next bend. We extinguished the car fire then continued to Panton Hill.
The tanker was topped up with water at Panton Hill Fire Station and we were advised to go to Hildebrand Road, Strathewen via St Andrews
We pulled in at St Andrews Fire Station for an update.
At 1800 the Kangaroo Ground fire tower reported the wind had swung from the North West to the South West. The wind change hit the tower at over 90Kph. The North East flank now became the head of the fire. The fire front rapidly travelled up the slopes of the Kinglake Ranges towards Kinglake. The tower noted a flame height of 60m (200ft). (June 16th transcript, 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission). The evidence of the Kangaroo Ground tower operator starts on page 152 (numbered 3218).
At 1817, located at St Andrew’s Fire Station, we heard a PAN (Possible Assistance Needed) radio transmission from a North Warrandyte Volunteer Fire Brigade tanker on the road between St Andrews and Kinglake. We thought other appliances would be closer but decided to proceed towards Kinglake as back up. We passed many houses razed to the ground and beyond help. It was becoming apparent that a disaster was unfolding.
The husband of the Kangaroo Ground fire tower operator was the driver of the North Warrandyte tanker.
At Mullers Rd we stopped to assist with a house under threat. We could see people defending the house and could hear their fire pump running. Mullers Rd was impassable due to fallen trees so we cut through the fencing and proceeded down the slope towards the house. We then heard the North Warrandyte tanker upgrade their distress call to MAYDAY. The North Warrandyte tanker was responding to a pager message (see below) of persons trapped in a house in Wild Dog Creek Rd, St Andrews. The fire intensity after the wind change forced them to head towards Kinglake. We turned back to the main road as the fire attack on the house did not appear to be life threatening, although the house was subsequently lost with no casualties. There was clear, already burnt ground surrounding the house and a nearby dam so there was safe areas to retreat to.
Google map streetview image of the house at Mullers Rd before the fire
At 1826 we acknowledged the MAYDAY call. The North Warrandyte tanker was unable to provide a location but stated they were on the Heidelberg-Kinglake Road between St Andrews and Kinglake. They had become disoriented by the fire front. Fire trucks are not supplied a GPS.
My bicycle computer has an inbuilt GPS for track logs. It can supply co-ordinates and give an accurate location unlike a $250K fire truck.
Everything around us was on fire. The conditions were uncomfortable but were bearable. This is not a bad situation for a fire crew, the biggest concern is being surrounded by unburnt ground and vegetation.
We were 9km below Kinglake but the road is steep and winding with fire on both sides. The road is cut across the face of a ridge with a very steep drop on one side.
The Heidelberg-Kinglake Road between St Andrews and Kinglake after the fire.
CFA appliances are usually responded to large fires as part of strike team, which has a local management structure, and is often under the control of an ICC (Incident Control Centre).
The North Warrandyte, Wonga Park and many other tankers were responded using the Computer Aided Despatch System (CAD). The CAD is not a control and command system. Crews responded by CAD on the 7th Feb were unmanaged and had no support. The radio channels were unworkable, even during a MAYDAY situation. The Crew Leader is ultimately responsible for crew safety, however, due to the extreme fire activity, the mountainous terrain, the high fuel loadings, the long distance spot fires, the lack of information, and the urgency of the messages, the decision making is difficult
The CAD system repeatedly paged crews to respond to locations inside the fire and into the path of the fire. It is convenient to blame crew leaders when they get into burn over situations but the laws of probability dictate, that in these conditions, some of them must get into extreme difficulties.
The Bushfire Royal Commission Chronology of the Kilmore East Fire estimated the fire front reached Kinglake at 1830 ( Submission 100.003.0037, 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission ). The location of the North Warrandyte tanker indicates the fire would have reached Kinglake slightly earlier,
Radio transmissions from the North Warrandyte tanker indicated that their situation was deteriorating. Attempts to arrange aerial water bombing were not successful due to the extreme weather conditions and lack of and accurate location. Frustratingly, our progress was slow due to the fire intensity and fallen trees. We stopped at a motorcycle lying on the road surrounded by fire. We noted the details and quickly searched for the rider. 200m further on we sighted the rider on road and briefly stopped to confirm he was deceased. It appeared he was overcome attempting to out run the fire on foot. We quickly moved on as our priority was rescue.
Motorcycle on Heidelberg-Kinglake Rd
Google map streetview image of the Heidelberg-Kinglake Rd before the fire
We were hoping the North Warrandyte truck had not progressed very far up the hill and we were expecting to find them as we rounded each bend.
We had to stop frequently to clear trees that had been dropped across the road by the fire. The intercom between the cabin and deck of the truck was unworkable with the ambient noise. These stops gave us an opportunity to update the crew on the radio communications.
Red embers showered the crew as they removed burning fallen trees off the road. The crew were fiercely determined to clear the road and maintain progress up the hill. We were stopped by a large tree that we were unable to shift. A combination of pushing with the truck bullbar and utilising all of the crew managed to clear a path. The fire intensity and radiant heat increased when the road changed to the very steep eastern side of the spur just below Kinglake.
We passed smouldering cars by the side of the road. They had crashed trying to escape the fire. I didn't look inside any cars.
The North Warrandyte tanker has an external sprayer system for protection from fire during entrapment but they reported they were now out of water. Their windscreen was broken, filling the cabin with smoke. This must have been extremely traumatic for the crew.
At 1845 we arrived at the Kinglake roundabout and were concerned that we had not sighted the North Warrandyte tanker. The Service Station on our left was fully involved in fire and tanks were exploding. The fire conditions in Kinglake were not as intense as on the slopes below the township.
After hearing on the radio that the North Warrandyte tanker had passed over speed humps we believed they must have been disoriented and had passed through Kinglake.
We spoke to two people sheltering in a car behind the Kinglake shops. They had sighted a CFA tanker travelling down Victoria St. They looked completely shocked. Andy tossed them a few bottles of water.
We proceeded down Victoria St and located the North Warrandyte tanker immobilised in a ditch at the “T” intersection of Victoria and Reserve Roads, 500m to the North East. It had been in a collision with a car fleeing the fire. All houses surrounding the intersection were on fire.
The intersection of Victoria Road and Reserve Road – Photo from Incident Investigation report
It was very dark with fire surrounding the truck. A gas cylinder exploded in a neighbouring house.
The North Warrandyte tanker is a crew cab type and all five crew are accommodated in the cabin. Most of the North Warrandyte crew were sheltering under heavy woollen crew protection blankets.
Although we were still in daylight hours it was as dark as the middle of the night. I could see the silhouette of the crew leader in the passenger seat. He was slumped forward on to the dashboard. I was very relieved to find he was still conscious although he was very groggy. We found out later he had two broken vertebrae in his back. I recognised the crew leader as Rohan Thornton, the North Warrandyte Fire Brigade Captain. I had recently attended a training course with Rohan. The North Warrandyte crew were assisted on to the back of our truck. Rhys joined Luke and I in the cabin as there was no space left on the deck that was shielded from fire. We now had seven on the back and three in the cabin.
We radioed for medical assistance. We were instructed to rendezvous with an ambulance at Coldstream, 35kms drive to the south east. This was the closest an ambulance would come to our location. This instruction directed us into the fire front.
At 1853 we radioed that we were under severe ember attack. We had just started down the slope to the east of Kinglake towards Toolangi. Glowing embers were striking the truck like a red hail storm. Luke could only just make out the white line on the road. We had to keep moving.
I was familiar with this road as I had regularly participated in a yearly bike ride called the Melbourne Autumn Day Ride (MAD Ride). It started in Yarra Glen then went to Healesville, Toolangi, Kinglake, Kinglake Central and return. I never thought I would be back in these circumstances.
Because we now had seven firefighters crammed on the back of the truck, the woollen crew protection blankets were difficult to access. Fortunately the crew had brought heavy structure fire fighting jackets in addition to the lighter wildfire jackets they were wearing. Tim and Andy lay on top of some of the North Warrandyte crew and used the structure jackets for protection. One of the North Warrandyte crew had his pants and beard catch fire. Another had hot embers down the back of his pants.
The fire intensity increased again as we travelled further east. Visibility improved with the hotter fire conditions as there was less smoke. The embers had ceased but we were now surrounded by flame. It was like driving at night with red flame contrasting the blackness. The downhill momentum of the truck was used to crash through or over fallen trees as getting off the truck was now not an option. There was a risk of puncturing a tyre, however Luke, a professional truck driver, stated he would be taking us out on the rims if need be. From the back of the truck Andy saw large tree crash onto the road behind us. The fire was burning towards the Melba Hwy and we had to pass out of the fire through the fire front where the intensity is greatest.
Front of Wonga Park Pumper Tanker showing damage to sirens and lights from driving over fallen trees. The damage was repaired and the truck resprayed. It was transferred to Doreen Fire Brigade in 2010. Photo - Don Gathercole
Front view of North Warrandyte Tanker1 – Photo from Incident Investigation report
Melted red and blue light beacons on the North Warrandyte tanker. This indicates the vehicle was subjected to extreme heat on both sides.
5Kms from Kinglake, the fire was crowning over the road. We briefly sheltered in a road cutting which put the fire above us, providing some relief from the radiant heat. It was becoming very uncomfortable for the crew on the back, breathing was difficult, they pressed their noses against the truck deck to get cleaner air. The truck still had a full tank of water. Tim and Andy resisted any temptation to use this water for comfort. Every drop would be needed if the truck was entrapped. The Pumper Tanker carries 2.5 cubic metres of water, that is about a bath tub for each of us.
Some of the North Warrandyte crew were drifting in and out of consciousness. We pushed on again when the fire intensity eased in the tree crowns. High levels of radiant heat were coming through the glass into the cabin. The novelty was definitely wearing off as each bend presented more and more flame. At approximately 1900, 6kms from Kinglake, we cleared the fire front after travelling 15kms in 40 minutes inside the fire.
Google streetview of Mt. Slide Rd cutting before the fire
We turned right on the to Melba Hwy ahead of the fire at Castella. This area was burnt out shortly after as the fire proceeded to Toolangi. The fire was approaching the Melba Hwy from our right and had spotted over the road at a few points. Luke pushed the truck hard down the section of road known as “The Slide” (Mt Slide) trying to get through before the fire front.
Due to heavy smoke overhead, it was still very dark on the Melba Hwy. A loose horse ran in front of the truck. The truck braked hard, shaking up the seven crew on the back. There is only seating for three.
The mood was lightened when the crew on the back sang Happy Birthday to Tim, a Wonga Park crew member, who was turning twenty the next day.
There were spot fires around Dixons creek and Yarra Glen. We passed through a number of road blocks and many people were gathered at the side of the road. The Yarra Glen Township was crowded with people sheltering from the fires. We cleared the last spot fire at Yering Station Winery.
At 1922 we met the ambulance at Coldstream Fire Station. The paramedics lifted Rohan off the back of the truck on a spinal board. He had an intravenous drip inserted and was taken to Hospital. The Wonga Park truck was then responded to fires in Tarrawarra Rd , Yarra Glen. The crew were recalled to Coldstream to attend a debrief with the remaining North Warrandyte crew members.
Tim, Rhys, Andy and Luke stayed calm and focused in very difficult conditions for an extended period of time. Each of them had met challenge after challenge with a determination to keep pushing ahead and complete the task.
The Wonga Park crew attended more fire calls until early the next morning. Most of the crew had a few hours sleep and were back at the Yarra Glen Staging Area at 0630 the next day. Wonga Park provided day and night shift crews for another three days, mainly around the Steels Creek area. Duties included attacking remaining fires, protecting any houses left standing, clearing fallen trees from roads and locating bodies.
Sunday was spent trying access houses isolated by the fire. This involved clearing roads with chainsaws and searching houses. On Monday we assisted the Police Search and Rescue team. A local Fire Guard member directed us to a house and told us that the owner, a woman living alone, had stated she was going to stay and defend against the fire. The house had collapsed and we located her body under the iron roof sheets. In less than 48 hours she was now a fragile white skeleton lying face up amongst the ashes.
In contrast to Saturday, the sky was blue and the temperature mild as we moved from house to house. There was almost complete silence, no breeze, no animals, no birds and few people. The loudest noise was ground crunching under our boots.
I met with Rohan Thornton again some months after the incident. His back injury was still causing discomfort and he was wearing a large brace. After talking with Rohan I was surprised to learn we had some common history. We were both 46 years old at the time of the fire. We both grew up in the same bayside suburb of Sandringham. We went to neighbouring primary schools. I went to Sacred Heart Primary and he went to Sandringham Primary. Walking home from school, Sacred Heart students would cross paths with the Sandringham Primary students at a park lined with oak trees. Although I cannot specifically remember Rohan, I do remember this meeting often resulted in students throwing accorns at each other. Nearly forty years later we crossed paths again on fire trucks in Kinglake during Australias worst bushfire.
Wonga Park Volunteer Fire Brigade
L-R Rhys Doughty-Cowell, Luke Thomas, Andrew
Wright, Tim Cochrane & Andy Oxley
Photo – Don Gathercole.
An account of the same incident by a member of the North Warrandyte crew
An account of the incident by North Warrandyte Captain Rohan Thornton.
An account of the incident by Wonga Park Crew member Andy Oxley.
A log of radio transmissions can be found here. The log was part of the investigation report and is incomplete as a number of transmissions were missed. I was supplied with a partial recording of the radio traffic by a radio enthusiast. A lot of transmissions were omitted from the log. Anyone listening to the recording will be amazed by the professionalism of the Vicfire operators under extremely stressful conditions. They will also be staggered by the lack of discipline shown by many firefighters, particularly in a MAYDAY situation. There were many trivial transmissions coming in on top of the MAYDAY.
The CFA submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission on the Wonga Park Pumper Tanker
The CFA submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission on the North Warrandyte Tanker
Accounts by North Warrandyte crew member Dean Leishman & Wonga Park crew member Tim Cochrane are in the book Black Saturday: Stories of love, loss and courage from the Victorian bushfires. All proceeds from the sale of this book (apart from the GST component) are being donated to The Salvation Army Victorian Bushfire Appeal.
Accounts by Rohan Thornton & Andrew Wright are in the book Firestorm - Black Saturdays Tragedy. 100% of profits are being donated to the CFA.
Google Map Path of Wonga Park Pumper Tanker or Google Earth file
Path with NASA Satellite image overlay from 14th Feb 2009 in Google Earth ( Large files – be patient )
Tip – In Google Earth click on NASA in “My Places” on the left side. Then use the slider to change the transparency of the overlay for the pre 7th Feb view.
Black Saturday Wiki