Join the CFA and Go to Blazes

“Join the CFA and go to blazes,” my brother would quip, as we gathered the essentials needed for an afternoon setting fire to all the roads and bush in the district. The Country Fire Authority was on the frontline of fighting bush and paddock fires; and in bushfire management the best defense is always offence hence the old expression ‘fighting fire with fire.’ So it was that at the end of every spring or early summer we’d burn the sides of roads to create firebreaks through out the district. It was the kind of activity with high appeal for any young lads. It was manly, moderately dangerous, and there was always the possibility of some real excitement should one of the burn offs turn into a raging grass fire, something that happened with alarming frequency.

The CFA was a volunteer organization. Its members were farmers, their sons and laborers, and a few pyromaniacs from the local townships. Each CFA station was equipped with fire trucks, radios, uniforms, axes, ladders and the like. The kind of paraphernalia every five-year-old boy dreams of one day owning. Stations were distributed amongst districts and each station had its own fire chief, usually of captain’s rank and lieutenants. The role of these senior officers in the CFA was to ensure the equipment was well maintained, coordinate burn offs and keep the local volunteer membership in order. In many places, the local stations became small community centers where men would gather and tinker with the equipment, exchange stories of bravery in bygone fires, remember the fallen, and plan the fire season ahead. There was rivalry too between CFA branches. Most of this was centered on equipment especially trucks and radio systems. It was all pretty entertaining stuff and frequently brought rye comments from my dad, as we’d drive past men out buffing hose brass and Bedfords on a Sunday afternoon.

All the same it was serious business and at times dangerous. Fire plagues the Australian bush during the summer threatening homes, incomes, and lives. With our own farm close to the edge of national forest, we weren’t immune from this scourge and every fire season was treated with trepidation. Burn offs presented excellent opportunities for the CFA captains to test the equipment, their communication and coordination skills, and train greenhorns. All of which is essential especially the communication and coordination element. Every year CFA firefighters die fighting forest fires and it is poor communications that are responsible for the majority of these deaths; something I very nearly experienced first hand.

The most dangerous job fighting bushfires isn’t fighting the fire directly dousing it with water. Though that is usually pretty hot and dirty work, for the most part you can see the fire, are not down wind of it, and are generally fighting it from some access point. The most dangerous job is cutting the firebreaks ahead of the fire. Usually this involves a bulldozer and a support vehicle such as a fire truck. Communications are paramount as you can’t see the fire front and are completely reliant on those that can. On one occasion fighting a bushfire in national forest near Heywood, shortly before CFA volunteers were banned from fighting fires in national forest, the Tahara CFA, of which I was a volunteer member, was called upon to be the support vehicle for cutting some firebreaks. At the time, I didn’t think this was a very sexy option and much preferred what we were doing fighting the fire front on. But my mates soon informed me that this wasn’t going to be a picnic; the fire will be exploding right over our heads.

And it was. However, initially the mission was pretty tame. There was only one glaring fault with it that I could see and that was very shortly going to prove near fatal. Our job was to follow the bulldozer watering its cabin as it cut a firebreak through thickish scrub. I was holding the hose on the back of the fire truck and remember it being particularly unpleasant as in exchange for the stream of life giving water I was generously affording the bulldozer, it sent back plumes of thick black diesel exhaust. That wasn’t what alarmed me, however, it was the fact that as we followed this bulldozer deeper into the bush I realized there was no way for us to turn our truck around, or the bulldozer for that matter, should the fire arrive. And it was just as I was having these thoughts that a fireball exploded overhead. It sucked all the oxygen out of the air around us and as I gasped for breath the heat of it burnt my lungs. “Right. Time to pull out,” I thought.

“What are we doing?” I yelled into the cabin of the fire truck.
“We’re staying here. They want us to keep going the front is away off yet,” came the reply from inside. “This is why we’re here. Keep dousing that bloody dozer.” I could here the radio crackling with the same intensity as the fire and the hurried but calm voices of different trucks calling back their positions and circumstances.

“Righto!”

The fireball had started a small spot fire in the canopy so I turned the hose on it. Canopy fires can be pretty dangerous but don’t generate the same heat and intensity as when the undergrowth catches. The smoke and heat from the canopy fire meant I lost visual with the bulldozer but it was fine and the driver, clearly a seriously brave man, kept carving through the bush, but things went badly very quickly from there. What I first thought of as being a small canopy fire turned out to be just the entre for the whole disaster. The fire was behind us.

“Get him out! Get him out of that dozer,” I could here the boys inside yelling out to me. But I wasn’t really sure which way to turn, keeping the water flowing seemed to me to be the best option, but I was wrong. The best option was to get the friggin’ hell out of there because we were about to be cooked. Then the radio operator jumped out of the cabin, ran forward to the dozer, and dragged the driver from its cabin.

“Blankets!” He was yelling as they ran back to the truck. “Get out the fucking blankets!” Training the hose, which was hard enough to operate with two hands with one, on the boys as they ran back to the truck, I frigged around and grabbed the fire blankets from the stupidly hot metal cage where they were stored, and tossed them into the cabin keeping one for myself. The dozer driver and radio operator jumped into the cabin and draped themselves in the blankets, whilst the truck driver got out and helped me cut off the water. We weren’t going to need it. Then he jumped back in and bought that old 1950’s four-wheel drive Bedford into its full glory. The power it found in reverse was gut wrenching and our driver blinded by the smoke and only able to drive with mirrors and instinct crashed back through 50 meters of burning bush which our useless firebreak had done nothing to contain.

As we spun out onto the gravel road we’d came in on, I felt a lot safer. But we weren’t out of the woods yet as the gravel road afforded little protection. However, fire moves in mysterious ways and we didn’t see it again until we were well clear of it and watching it from some distance. My hands were shaking a little from the adrenaline as we pulled over and the driver called, “Smoko!”

Cigarettes have a curious way of inserting themselves into every aspect of a fire season, but after breathing in the burning bush for hours the insidious little reward they offered at this moment must have been fire’s greatest triumph. We puffed away like maniacs lucky not to attract an airborne water bomb. Then one of the men asked me if my mom had packed any of that sultana cake as we could do with bite and a cup of tea.

The Hindu’s say you can taste the love in good cooking and that must have been true of mom’s sultana cake. And with five sons, four daughters and a husband ‘that sultana cake’ as it was so often referred to had a certain omnipresence turning up at shearing smokos, sports pie nights, school fates and church outings. And on one particular occasion earlier on in my CFA volunteering days had very nearly cost a man his house.

All of this transpired at a time when the Tahara CFA was undergoing a leadership crisis. Two local identities were vying for the captaincy of our CFA brigade. They were neighbors and sworn enemies. Roger Wilson was the manager of the biggest farming estate in the district called “Hamilton Hills”, and Greg McCloud was the owner of another large farm called “Riverdale”. Both these properties bordered one another and our own farm. We were all well acquainted. Roger was like farming royalty, and Greg was a successful farmer’s son on the verge of bringing financial ruin upon the family farm through an international currency farm finance scheme that was about to turn disastrously against him. If risk taking were the measure of men then Greg was a base jumper and Roger would have sat out a game of lawn bowls.

On this particular occasion we were conducting a burn off along a road that ran between their two properties and were about to come to an intersection. Because of a particularly wet spring we were burning off late in the summer and there was quite a bit of fuel about in the form of long grass. Greg had already cut and baled his hay and two new stacks stood neatly in the corner of his hay paddock. Across the road from these haystacks was the Miller’s house, a farm laborer’s cottage belonging to Hamilton Hills. I had been teamed up with Roger and was on the back of a small one-ton farm pickup. We had a large water tank, hoses and pump, all fairly standard farm equipment. However, before the burn off had reached the intersection we’d almost run out of water and so had left the others, who had nothing more than knapsacks, to fill up our tank. The fire was burning pretty tamely at this stage and there was hardly a breath of wind about.

We had to drive a couple of kilometers away to fill up with water and the whole process was going to take at least twenty minutes. Roger didn’t seem too concerned about leaving the others behind so ill equipped, and maybe he was right because Greg was at the rear of the burn off in the fire truck ensuring that nothing was left smoldering.

Hamilton Hills had a specially designed quick-fill water system and the tank was overflowing in no time. But we were positioned in a valley so that we didn’t have a very clear view of the burn off which was just over a rise in the hill.

“It looks like there’s a lot more smoke up there Mr. Wilson,” I said.
“Oh. I don’t know Dan. There’s a lot of fuel at that corner,” Roger said stifling a yawn. “It’s time for smoko.”
“But Mr. Wilson, don’t you think that’s too much smoke? I think it might be one of Mr. McCloud’s haystacks.”
“No. Forget it Dan. Anyway bloody McCloud’s there with that fire truck. Did your mom pack any of that sultana cake?”

We sat back munching away on mom’s legendary cake and with a couple of cups of Thermos’ tea were lulled into something akin to an opium stupor as we watched the smoke thicken on the horizon from plumes to the very definite intensity that a serious fire gets when it starts to generate its own wind. Roger seemed to be slowly coming around and was ready to rouse himself.

“We’d better get back there Dan, and see what trouble McCloud’s gotten himself into,” he mumbled.

So we indolently packed up our smoko kits, and climbed into the pick up where Roger took his time fastening his seatbelt something nobody usually bothered with in those days before we started moving at sheep-muster speed back to the burn off. But Roger’s languid demeanor was about to receive the same treatment dealt up to overdosing junkies, pure adrenaline, because as the pick-up crested the hill we saw a huge paddock fire licking at the edges of the Miller’s cottage.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Roger stammered. “And we’ve been sitting there eating that bloody sultana cake.”

Join the CFA and Go to Blazes

Digby

Taipei, Taiwan

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