Ash Wednesday memories still burn bright

THE fireman in charge of south-west Victoria during the Ash Wednesday holocaust knows many people have never gotten over their experiences on that day 30 years ago.

Former Country Fire Authority region five regional officer Bruce Furnell said the weather on Ash Wednesday 1983 was similar to that on Black Saturday in 2009. 

“Thirty years is a long time ago. It was an incredibly bad day, not dissimilar to Black Saturday. Southern Victoria had dried out because of the drought,” Mr Furnell said.

“When the south burns you know it’s got to be real dry in the north. One of the things that stands out about Ash Wednesday was the volunteer commitment — it was just exceptional.”

Mr Furnell said the region’s recovery effort was based in Panmure and emergency services co-ordinated from the Panmure hall for a couple of weeks after the fires.

“The Panmure hall was the support base for people who lost their homes and the loved ones of people who died,” he said.

“The effect on a lot of people was felt many years later. A lot of people never quite got over it.”

Mr Furnell said the commitment of volunteer firefighters was outstanding, with CFA region five comprising 12 groups and about 100 brigades, with an average of 50 firefighters per brigade.

“The co-ordinating group officers were brilliant — Bruce Jones, Ian Askew and Robert Hood. Police in charge were Peter Morris and John Bateman. John had worked in Melbourne for many years and was able to ring parliamentarians and people in positions which made a lot of difference,” he said.

“The fires were fast-moving grass fires which absolutely overwhelmed our systems. The Hopkins/Curdie group was run by brother and sister, Peter and Mary Boyle. Their farm and animals were burnt and they still ran the group from their house.” Mr Furnell said the late Peter O’Rourke flew an aircraft from which he was able to see the front of the Cudgee and Ballangeich fires and predict their convergence.

“He forewarned us and was a key person at the inquests,” he said.

Mr Furnell said that while about 100 CFA appliances were available to fight the fires, that number was boosted by up to 10 private vehicles per brigade.

“In the build-up to the fires, from the mid 1970s until 1983, there was a pump subsidy scheme which assisted farmers and property owners to fund their own private units. For each CFA appliance there was five to 10 private appliances,” he said.

“That was very fortunate. The commitment of the volunteers was astronomical. 

“People dropped everything and committed themselves. We don’t have that number of private appliances any more.”

The former fire chief also questioned if the CFA was now over-organised with CFA permanent staff taking over control at almost all levels in emergencies.

He suggested the CFA was “top heavy” even though he is still a volunteer at Huntly, north Bendigo, after being involved with the CFA for more than 50 years and being a previously paid member of the CFA.

“Region five was very well organised. Private operators had UHF radios, professionals VHF and the CFA trucks were equipped with both,” he said.

“It was a highly effective communications system. Today I see the CFA as being over organised in my point of view,” he said.

“One of the things that I see as being far better organised is the co-ordination between the CFA, Department of Sustainability and Environment and other agencies.”

Mr Furnell said the introduction of firefighting aircraft had revolutionised firefighting, having the capability of “knocking down” a fire front.

“That’s the one tremendous advancement in the past 30 years. Ash Wednesday is far different from today, the aerial capability is now phenomenal,” he said.

“Back then some properties had not done the fire prevention they could have. Municipalities do a lot to assist hazard reductions but complacency sets in because it’s usually a long time between major fires, often generations. 

“That’s a message that continually needs to be put out there so people are aware.”

Mr Furnell was based in Hamilton for 12 years from 1982-1994 before he moved to the Bendigo district.

“Reflecting back on Ash Wednesday, it was a real eye-opener. It was a huge day, there was a huge loss of life throughout Victoria,” he said.

“One of our right-hand men was Dennis Napthine. He and people like David Coldbeck, regional officer for the SES, did enormous jobs. The list of people who did outstanding jobs is endless.

“The fire kept smouldering down in the bush coastal reserves along the Great Ocean Road for weeks. 

“There was enormous damage to farms. Small townships between Warrnambool and Curdievale were almost wiped out.”

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