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14 June 2024 4:54 pm

2019-2020: Black Summer

The bush fire season of 2019-2020 will be remembered as a time of devastating fires, property loss and, unfortunately, the loss of many lives including RFS volunteers, New South Wales residents and overseas firefighters.  Whilst we were not physically impacted, the brigade was actively involved in a range of activities including fire fighting, property protection, back burning and patrolling, community consultation and community communication.

And so it began ……..

The bush fire season for New South Wales arrived extremely early – large fires in northern and north western areas of the state took authorities by surprise – fires burnt hotter, moved faster and were completely unpredictable.

In early November, the Brigade’s Captain, Brett Bannerman, volunteered for deployment to these fires and was posted to the Glen Innes area. As part of a Remote Area Crew, Brett worked with local brigades and was involved in a range of intense bush firefighting activities including front line fire fighting, property protection, resident evacuation, planned back burning and, as Brett said ‘learning more about bush fire fighting in a few short days than ever before’.  The lessons Brett learnt fighting these fires were brought back and implemented on the fire grounds of the Green Wattle Creek and Morton fires in the Wollondilly, Highland and Upper Lachlan LGA areas. During November, Brett was also deployed to the fires at Square Rock and Bucketty, again with Remote Area Crews.

The first local fire of the season started at Brayton along the Wollondilly River – both the Cat1 and Cat7, with crews were dispatched to assist brigades from Marulan, Tallong, Penrose, Bundanoon, Hill Top and Exeter. FDR was Very High, high temps and a strong westerly wind.  Cause of fire: campers that did not extinguish their campfire. Size – 5 hectares.

Our brigade helping out at Balmoral

The season starts to ramp-up

On Tuesday 26th November following the passage of a violent electrical storm two fires were detected early the next morning. These fires were named the ‘Twin Peak’ and ‘Green Wattle Creek’ fires.

Remote Area Firefighters from the NSW RFS and NPWS were winched and flown into the area (including Brett) to assist in bringing the fires under control. Hotter conditions during the afternoon and increased fire activity required all fire fighters to be extracted. The use of aircraft increased and several runs by the Very Large Tankers (VLAT’s) were carried out slowing down the progress of the fire.

On Thursday 28th November the two fires had merged and this fire maintained the name of the ‘Green Wattle Creek’ fire now increasing in size to approximately 890 ha. Large volumes of smoke drifted to the east and impacted on large areas of the Wollondilly Shire. A letter box drop was arranged for residents of Nattai and parts of Oakdale.

The efforts of the aerial resources slowed the progress of the fire to the east however it increased to the south and south-west and the fire as at Friday morning was 2133 ha in size.

A section 44 Bush Fire Emergency was declared at 8.00am ON 29 November by the NSW RFS Commissioner.

Green Wattle Creek (approx 300,000 hectares burnt) and Morton Fires (approx. 23,000 hectares burnt).

Period which brigade was active on a daily basis: 1 December, 2019 to 13 January 2020

Brigade was represented on 41 days by 18 different people contributing a total of 123 people days.

The Canyonleigh Brigade undertook a range of tasks over this intense period. These included (but were not limited to) firefighting of bush, grass and structures, back burning, property protection, blacking-out perimeter lines, day and night patrols, strike team participation, community consultation, property preparation, RAFT Team (Remote Area Firefighting Team) deployment into difficult terrain, review and remediation & maintenance of fire trails in the Canyonleigh area including bull dozer supervision and direction,  service, repair and maintenance.

Property protection was a major responsibility for the brigade.

Whilst there were no fires in the Canyonleigh area (the Green Wattle Fire was within 400m of our Northern boundary), the Brigade was deployed in both immediate locations and out of area. As with all large fire events, brigades meet at a designated location for initial briefings and deployments. The Canyonleigh brigade travelled to the following locations for (on average) 12 hour deployments – not including travel to and from Canyonleigh:

Hill Top, Bullio, Oakdale, Balmoral, Exeter, Colong Station, Bundanoon, Wingello, Taralga, Lakesland, Bindook, Colo Vale, Buxton, Balmoral, High Range and Penrose.

For many members, the Green Wattle and Morton Fires were their first exposure to significant bush fire events. Our brigade mix of new and experienced RFS volunteers was recognised by many local brigades, incident controllers and residents of the many areas in which we were active.

30 January 2020 the Green Wattle Creek fire was listed as `Contained’ and at Patrol status.

2 February 2020 the Morton Fire was listed at `Contained’ and at Patrol status.

On Friday 7 February 2020, the Commissioner of RFS revoked the Section 44 at 10.00pm

The following details outlines the days the brigade was active, where they were located and activities undertaken.

Nov 6-10              Glenn Innes                        Brigade Captain flew to northern NSW to join other brigades

Nov 12                  Canyonleigh                       Brigade standup at Fire Shed on Catastrophic Day – no                                                                                    incidents

Nov 24-25            Square Rock                       Captain deployed with Remote Area Team (RAFT)

Nov 26                  Brayton                                Cat 1, Cat 7 and crews attend Wollondilly River fire

Nov 29                  Bucketty                              Captain flew from Bankstown as a part of RAFT crew

Dec 1-4                 Coolong Station                Start of fire to become Green Wattle Creek fire. Brigade                                                                  involvement included fire fighting, hand tool work and                                                   property protection.

Dec 6                     Oakdale                               Property protection, extinguishing spot fires

Dec 9                   Bindook                              Crew flies to location, uses NPWS equipment fire fighting

Dec 10                   Lakesland                            Back burning, extinguishing spot fires, patrol

Dec 14                   Colo Vale                             Blacking out firelines, patrol, dry firefighting activities

Dec 15                   Hill Top                                 Back burning, blacking out, fire line patrol

Dec 17                   Hill Top                                 Back burning, hand toll lines, water transfer

Dec 18                   Hill Top                                 5am start, back burning, patrol

Dec 19                   Buxton/Bullio                    Patrol, property protection, fire fighting

Dec 20                   Balmoral                              Property preparation & protection, active fire fighting

Dec 20                   Canyonleigh                       Prepare and present community event at Fire Shed

Dec 21                   Hill Top                                 Property protection and preparation, extinguish spot fires

Dec 22                   Hill Top                                 Patrol, black out, property preparation

Dec 28                   High Range/Hill Top        Patrol, blacking out, extinguish spot fires

Dec 29                   Hill Top                                 Back burning, property protection, blacking out

Dec 30                   Taralga                                  Back burning, patrol, blacking out

Dec 31                   Taralga                                  Fire fighting, property protection, deployed to Wombeyan

Caves area

Jan 3                      Canyonleigh                       RFS community meeting at Fire Shed

Jan 4                      Canyonleigh                       Cat 1 located at Tugalong Station, fire shed manned all day

Jan 4                      Bundanoon/Wingello     10pm call-out at 10pm Cat 1 and 7, firefighting, property

protection, patrol   

Jan 5                      Canyonleigh                       Property inspections and community contact

Jan 6                      Canyonleigh                       Fire trail inspections, supervise dozer on Tugalong tracks

Jan 7                      Canyonleigh/Penrose    Refilling of water tanks around Canyonleigh, water source

mapping. Called to Penrose for fire and property activities

Jan 8                      Canyonleigh                       Mapping water sources Inverary & Hanging Rock Roads

Jan 9                      Bowral                                  Truck wheel repairs on Cat 1

Jan 10                    Canyonleigh                       Fire trail remediation, Tugalong Station track review

Jan 11                    Exeter/Bundanoon         1am call-out, property preparation and protection

Jan 12                    Canyonleigh                       Supervise 2 blade wide fire line on Tugalong station

Jan 13                    Canyonleigh                       Dozer fire lines around Omni Exec, Little Forest and between

Bangadilly National Park and private property.

Jan 19                    Bullio                                     Canyonleigh Captain joined RAFT Crews from Sthn Hlnds and

NPWS looking for and extinguishing hot spots

SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET

The Canyonleigh Brigade wasn’t the only brigade in the RFS to utilise the power of social media and the web, however, the feedback and response from our 2,100 plus followers and the wider social media network was truly astounding. Add to this the significant increase in traffic to our web site, it was clear that the web was the first reference point for millions of people from around the world.

Canyonleigh’s social media campaign commenced following the escalation of the Green Wattle Creek fire in early December. Every day of the campaign we posted updates, information, Fire Danger Ratings if they escalated, brigade activity and general advice to our followers. Even though our target was the approx. 300 people of Canyonleigh, our posts went viral – page views of up to 30,000 was not uncommon. We even received messages from a number of overseas people who had friends in Canyonleigh and the Highlands.

Our web site was an important component of our campaign – every day during the bush fire season the daily Fire Danger Rating was updated, information on Total Fire Bans – even if the FDR was raised during the day, the web site was updated.

The appreciation and recognition from the Canyonleigh and wider community was truly appreciated by the Brigade and its members.

A few Facebook stats:

Average Post Reach Dec/Jan – approx. 3,000

Highest Post Reach – 39,177

Followers – Boosted from 1,300 to 2170 over the Dec/Jan period

Post engagements Jan only: 19,000 plus

Web site hits over Dec/Jan: 16,500

THE COMMUNITY AND OUR BRIGADE

The treat of fires brought the community together three times. The first event was staged on 20 December as a community advice event. Even though the Green Wattle Creek fire to Canyonleigh’s north was yet to become an imminent threat, the Brigade staged a community get together to discuss the potential impact of fire on the area. Brigade Secretary Terry Biscoe welcomed the 160 plus community members that attended and gave them a brief rundown of fires state-wide and details of the Green Wattle Creek fire. Brigade Captain, Brett Bannerman, then painted a picture of bush fire impact and ramifications on the local community should they not be ready or leave early should an incident eventuate. Using a Henry Lawson poem as a pre-curser to his presentation, Brett chose to call upon the real facts should a fire impact Canyonleigh: we do not have enough assets to individually protect the area should we be impacted by a major bush fire.  Brett was then followed by the Brigade’s Community Liaison Officer, Frances Crown, who then took the audience through the ramifications of Fire Danger Ratings and potential fire impact. During France’s presentation and after, attendees were counselled on impacts, the importance of property preparation and, should the Green Wattle Creek fire threaten Canyonleigh, the direction in which it would impact.

The second community meeting was called by the RFS on Friday 3 January in light of probable fire impact on Saturday 4 January. On short notice, over 200 locals attended the Fire Shed to get the latest fire updates and impact potential. Inspector David Stimson’s presentation painted a realistic picture of the fire’s potential impact, behaviour, RFS assets available and the advice to consider departing Canyonleigh either that night or very early the next morning. At the end of the presentation the community was invited to participate in a Q&A session. Inspector Stimson and experienced Brigade members responded to and answered every question asked. The following day, the majority of the Canyonleigh community had relocated until conditions improved.

The third community meeting was held on Friday 7 February – initiated by the Canyonleigh Community Association (CCA). At 6.30 pm, people attended the fire shed for a final de-brief of events of the past two months. The event was a `closer’ for both the brigade and the community that endured one of the most challenging bush fire seasons for some twenty years. After the de-brief, the community and brigade members attended the Canyonleigh Community Hall for `burgers & drinks’ hosted by the CCA.

“The scale of these bushfires is unprecedented and NSW is experiencing the most devastating natural disaster in living memory,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Quotes from Brigade members:

“As we attended the emergency call to this particular street, we drove up directly facing huge intense fiery red flames. The depth of heat down that road looked like the entrance to hell.”

“Whilst it was a terrible event for those who lost their homes, for me it felt good to be part of a grand endeavour and to know I was making a positive contribution to the community.”

“I could not believe how thick the smoke was – my eyes were watering even though I had my mask on.”

“You can never under-estimate the danger – the fire had its own evil personality”

“The bush was blackened, there was no life and the acrid smell of burnt trees and scrub filled the air.”

“The sting of sweat in my eyes blinds me momentarily …. keep wiping …. I have to keep the smoke out.”

“I felt both excited and apprehensive”

“The season was relentless it just didn’t let up. Each night you would go to bed exhausted wake up exhausted yet somehow find the energy to keep going.”

“I didn’t want to let the people around me down. It took 3 weeks after the fire for my energy to return.”

“It’s scary when 3 people you know, 2 of whom are the toughest people you have ever met, end up in Hospital”

“Early in the season one of my friends said to me “you are a long way from home” my reply was “yes; however, I am close to someone’s home” “

“It was good to protect so many homes and sad to see the ones we lost”

A note from a property owner:

Dear Brett, Just wanted to say a HUGE THANK YOU to ALL your crews for protecting our house yesterday. It was a huge relief to see it still standing when we drove in yesterday afternoon. The fire was still trickling up the hillside and we had to chainsaw two fallen trees to clear the driveway, as expected. But the house and sheds are fine.

Please pass on our tremendous thanks. Your teams were so calm and professional. I hope you all get some rest and a break from the firefighting. THANK YOU seems so inadequate to express the overwhelming gratitude our family feels. But THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU

 

Acknowledgements

We have so many people to thank for their support and generosity over the 2019-2020 bush fire season, including:

Canyonleigh Community Association

Canyonleigh First Responders

National Parks & Wildlife Service

Brazenor Family

Shane Turner for using his heavy equipment clearing around the fire shed

Bowral Golf Club

Tahmoor Rotary Association

Numerous private supporters

Ophelia Haragli and her community group My Sisters Keeper. Ophelia and her supporters donated a washing machine, upright freezer, camp stretchers and food for the brigade.

RFS Inspector David Stimson

We would like to formally thank the many people that donated to our fundraising campaign in Jan/Feb. We were overwhelmed and truly appreciative. Your generosity has enabled the Brigade to purchase much-needed equipment and supplies enabling ease-of-maintenance and operational activities – both for training and in the field.

Let us all hope that we never experience the an event like the Black Summer Fires again – but, unfortunately, Australia is a land where droughts, flooding rain and bush fires prevail.