Bushfire Widows

Peter McHugh (bio)

I have often joked over the years that there are three sorts of firefighters in rural Victoria;

  • Firstly, there are the large numbers of CFA volunteers in their bright yellow overalls and shiny red trucks fitted with flashing lights and sirens who operate in small country towns, on private and cleared farmland or around houses scattered along the more accessible and visible interface with the public forest. The men and women that turn out so rapidly and so selflessly with these tanker crews and strike teams do a sensational job and their local communities and the media are quite rightly very proud of them. I certainly am.
  • Secondly, there are the "blue shirts" - the paid-staff in the CFA, the Regional Officers and so on. And not forgetting the DEECA and Parks Victoria permanent and summer firefighting crews in their jolly green overalls employed under AWU award conditions.
  • And then there are people like me - the conscripts - those professional foresters and other staff employed by the State Government that had another full-time job but where forest firefighting was a major but important add-on. And it just got bigger and bigger each year, particularly as ranks of experienced staff began to thin.

Comparatively small in numbers, the conscripts mostly take-on the critical but less glamorous senior management roles such as incident controllers, planners, situation, communications, mapping, aircraft operations and logistics officers etc... While out in the bush on the fire front, conscripts with thier local knowledge and experience marshal resources, direct operations and are appointed as sector or divisional commanders. We also tend to cop the recovery jobs responsible for picking up the pieces when the colour and movement of the firefight has long faded.

In my experience, Victorian forest firefighters have always been a pretty innovative “can-do” lot with a strong sense of duty who tend to focus on working together and just quietly getting the job done.

And unlike some other emergency responders that are able to employ much simpler “surround and drown” tactics that usually last less than 12 hours or so, forest firefighters often confront large campaign bushfires in remote and rough terrain that can stretch for weeks or even months.

Nearly one-third of Victoria is State Forest and National Park, with an even bigger proportion when you just look at Gippsland. It’s a vast estate from the mountains to the sea. Foresters, Rangers and others who have full-time roles managing this land find themselves caught up in fighting fires, often in remote and prolonged campaigns, well away from the public or media gaze.

Dry firefighting with bulldozers, rakehoes, chainsaws and axes by its very nature is hard physical work but an essential skill in these far-flung places with limited access to water. It’s something that’s been developed and honed over many decades. Firebombing aircraft play an important role but there is no substitute for “boots-on-the-ground”.

When I began in the late 1970s, crews were deployed to chase remote lightning strikes across the mountains and told not to come back until the fires were either out or you were relieved. In my first summer, there were 606 outbreaks, of which 77 occurred over a period of just three days. Lightning caused most of these in the alpine areas of the State. Many were controlled quickly but eight developed into major fires and Stage 2 of the State Disaster Plan was enacted. The staff were so severely stretched that large RAAF Iroquoi helicopters then came to help but most Forests Commission crews were away from home for about three weeks or more without a rest.

We towed a wooden trailer with a canvas cover and set up a rudimentary camp in a small clearing in the bush somewhere on the Dargo High Plains near a river but still close to the fire edge on the rugged Blue Rag Range south of Mt Hotham. It wasn’t possible to get a vehicle with a water pump or bulldozer close to the actual fire edge so each day our crew walked several kilometres down a steep and slippery scree slope into the Wongungarra River and then bashed our way through the thick scrub before we even got to the fire.

On a couple of the smaller spot fires that summer I know that some crews abandoned their heavy tools and chainsaws at the bottom of the valley and left them sitting on a sandy river bank rather than lug them back up the steep slopes. Some gear was later recovered by RAAF helicopters but most was lost forever.

Our camp was a fairly primitive affair and I quickly learned from the old hands it was wise to come away and expect to remain pretty self-sufficient for the first three days or so until better arrangements for food and supplies could be made. The improvements to base camp facilities over recent years with hot showers, decent cooked food and medical support has been phenomenal and very welcome.

We took basic rations with us but mostly got our meals back in a basecamp once it was properly established. So I never want to see tinned baked beans or spam again. Sometimes meals were delivered to the fireline in “hot packs” that looked a bit like packaged airline food and tasted about the same. They were usually cold because they had been prepared many hours before. Some clever people even took fishing rods with them to try and catch a trout for breakfast in the remote and pristine rivers.

When our crew worked night shift out on the fireline it was common to start a little campfire in the cold chilly hours just before dawn. We could then cook some food out of a tin and then scratch a patch clear with a rakehoe to lay down in the dirt and ash next to the coals to try to keep warm and snatch some sleep. I hated night shift.

While the permanent staff like me were paid by cheque each fortnight the AWU crews were paid in cash. The pays were made up into small manila envelopes by two admin officers in the Mirboo North office where I was posted and sometimes delivered to the crew out in the field, often by the junior forester (i.e. me or some other lowly shit-kicker). After the big fires in January, one of the fortnightly payrolls amounted to nearly $32,000 (or four times my annual salary). This humongous pay was delivered by two more senior staff and they took a .22 pistol with them to protect the money in case of a hold-up. The pistol and ammunition were normally kept in the office safe. Remembering that the AWU crews worked alongside the Morwell River Prison inmates in the nursery and planting trees in the remote hill country of the Strzelecki Ranges so this was a real risk.

There were so many fires that summer of 1977-78 that the Department didn’t have enough money to pay all the overtime owed to staff. So while the crew got paid the staff had to wait until the new financial year in July to get our back-pay. It came in one big lump and then the tax-man took most of it because marginal tax rates were around 70 cents in the dollar. Ouch !!!

Staff were also paid an additional $3.07 per week as a “disability allowance”, which was just about enough to buy a quarter of a tank of petrol when the pump price was hovering around 22 cents/litre. This miserable amount was to compensate for the strict requirement to be within a two-hour recall from my home district for the whole of the fire season (or about five months). Even when not rostered on stand-by.

In an era before mobile phones, it also meant being contactable by a landline at all times or letting the district duty officer know where you were. This was pretty difficult when I was still single and living on a farm out of town.

Moreover, it was not allowable to take any recreation leave over the summer months. It wasn’t until 1985 and many years of union and staff agitation that a limited summer leave roster was introduced. The new system allowed for up to two days leave but was restricted to only 10% of the staff at any one time. Senior staff with school-aged children tended to get first pick, so Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day were often spent on fire standby or availability.

And let’s not even mention compulsory staff transfers …

Generally well away from the media spotlight, very few people other than our families were often even aware that forest firefighters might spend weeks away deep in the mountains with the heat, dust, snakes and flies.

So really, when you think about it, there is a fourth and largely hidden and mostly unacknowledged group of firefighters.

We should all pause for a moment to thank the many long-suffering and unsung “bushfire widows” who quietly tolerated their firefighting partners heading off to remote locations in the bush with strange sounding names like Mount Buggery or the Terrible Hollow, usually at incredibly short notice and without knowing exactly when we would get back home. Left to just simply cope with the sudden domestic disruption they were the glue that kept the show-on-the-road back at home.

The nightly TV news rarely covered the events unfolding in the forests far from home and the lack of phones and internet made communications difficult or impossible until we returned. But while we were away, these pesky bushfires often crept close to the edge of the small country towns where we lived to create real fears for our loved ones.

In recent decades the large bushfires across the mountains created huge plumes of smoke over the horizon which then often drifted into the valleys far below to create an ever-present reminder for our families and our communities. Everyone was affected, attendances at community meetings swelled while the armchair experts ran commentary.

I’m also pretty sure not too many folks outside Victoria’s small and close-knit forest firefighting community fully appreciated that without the support of our families the Department could not respond so rapidly and deploy such a large firefighting force into the field for the extended campaigns that we all endured.

Constantly watching the weather radar and the lightning storms to see if our weekend plans were about to be changed was the norm. And like many others, I missed out seeing my kids opening their presents on Christmas morning on more than one occasion.

Thankfully times, technology and techniques have changed but the culture, commitment, and comradery of the forest firefighters have not.

For me, being shit-scared on the back of the Forests Commission tanker at Cockatoo during the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, and then later in the days after Black Saturday in 2009 looking for bodies on Red Hill Road and then wrangling community meetings in front of large angry mobs are my notable bookends.

And everyone of this small group of conscripts and their families has a story to tell.

I’m proud to say I was a forest firefighter. But we should also not forget our ever supportive bushfire widows ….