WHEN a fire erupted in the early days of Warrnambool’s settlement, the disorganised response meant the primary concern was often not to save the building but to prevent it spreading to adjacent structures.
Since the town did not have reticulated water, residents were paid to cart water to fires and there were stories of some refusing to attend one fire in case they weren’t paid.
The formation of the Warrnambool Fire Brigade in 1863 provided a more reliable response but it might have been too enthusiastic initially.
Fire reports indicate there were some spectacular crashes as the horse-drawn fire engines rushed to call-outs.
Since those early days the brigade has been able to achieve a much higher success rate in getting to fires safely and saving buildings.
The brigade this year celebrates its 150th anniversary with a range of events, including a gathering to mark the initial public meeting on March 6, 1863, that led to the brigade’s formation.
The brigade will also be given the honour of marching behind the CFA chief officer Ewan Ferguson in tonight’s torchlight procession by CFA urban brigades through Warrnambool’s central business district.
The procession, in which brigades are assessed on their marching proficiency, is one of the events in this weekend’s Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) state championships in the city.
Another commemorative event will be an anniversary dinner in May.
The brigade’s anniversary celebrations project co-ordinator David Ferguson said the brigade played a big part in maintaining the prosperity of Warrnambool and the district’s prosperity.
Unfortunately the brigade’s importance is often only seen when fire occasionally impacts seriously on the city’s economy, such as the Warrnambool Telstra exchange fire in November.
The early morning fire in the Koroit Street exchange on November 22 caused losses estimated at $100 million to Warrnambool’s economy when it knocked out 65,000 landlines, 15,000 broadband connections and more than 80 mobile phone towers.
Mr Ferguson said fire’s ability to wreak extensive havoc had been seen locally on occasions, as far back as the 1856 Bateman’s store fire in Banyan Street.
The store was also a financier to local farmers and when it was destroyed, a number of farmers went broke.
Other big fires in Warrnambool’s history have included the St John’s Presbyterian Church fire in 1920, the 1929 fire at the Mansions Hotel, that has become the Hotel Warrnambool, and the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires that cost lives and devastated a huge swathe of local farmland. Early last decade a fire in a charcoal chicken shop spread to the adjacent Centrelink office, that had to be rebuilt.
Mr Ferguson said strong community support was a proud feature of the brigade’s history.
Community fund-raising events such as goat races got the brigade much of its equipment in the early days.
“It’s always been prominent in the Warrnambool community,” Mr Ferguson said.
Bruce Cope, in his history of the brigade to 1976, notes that its first equipment was leather buckets, funded by the municipal council.
Mr Ferguson said the brigade still enjoyed strong support from Warrnambool council, highlighted by its help with this weekend’s VFBV urban state championships.
Growing demands on the brigade led to the appointment of full-time paid members in 1961 but volunteers still comprise the majority of its personnel.
It has 50 volunteers who serve in a variety of roles and 17 staff members. In the 12 months to July last year the brigade responded to 561 fires, incidents and emergencies.
Mr Ferguson said the brigade had a long history of involvement in the VFBV championships.
In 1894 Warrnambool hosted a state fire brigade championship that involved 80 brigades.
Warrnambool hosted the junior championships in 2004 and the senior titles in 2009.
The brigade, located in Raglan Parade adjacent to Warrnambool Primary School, has moved a handful of times during the past 150 years and its previous locations include two in Liebig Street, one in Timor Street and another in Raglan Parade.