Firefighting Stawell Style - Early 1940s

JD Gillespie

From notes prepared by JD Gillespie in 1983.

Leaving the vehicle to walk in: 3 to 5 men with slashers, axes, rakes (old pattern fire rakes) and at least one shovel (bring the knapsack we might want it). Water bags and billy, tea and sugar probably mixed together in a screw top jar. Some sort of food supply generally self-provided and self-transported. Probably carried in a sugar bag fitted with rope and used as a pack.

Working on the fire: Upon arrival at the fire edge decide best direction for hand trail, and start work, but first leave some of the extra tools, the knapsack and the tucker bags in a location selected with an eye to their safety if the fire gets away. A tireless individual sets off with a slasher. He doesn't seem to work hard but just try and keep up with him. Others rake the line. If things get a big hot on the edge knock the flames down with well placed shovelfuls of sand thrown with a spreading action. Two men working together performed wonders at this. It really worked and so did they! Pay attention to material which might roll. Cover up small burning stumps with sand so that the sparks can't fly. Cut through logs which cross the line, but if they are too big rake underneath them and cut a niche into the dry, weathered, exterior material down to solid wood, so that the fire (hopefully) will not burn across the track. Walk back along the line to see its OK. Scrape the stringy bark off smouldering trees near the line so the fire can't run up then any further.

Bring up the spare tools, tuckerbags and knapsack from time to time. If you decide to use water on something, after cutting away as much as possible of what was burning, get down close to the smouldering wood and spray carefully with short strokes of the pump. It's a long way back to water. One knapsack full might serve for a whole day.

Repeat, repeat, repeat until you reach the rocky upper areas, (it goes out up there!) or you meet the other crew coming from the other direction.

On a big job walk back down the line at sunset (daylight saving during the War) and have a bite to eat - tinned meat, bread, oil that once was butter and jam and billy tea (blast the ants they've found the bloody jam!). Sleep under the truck. Walk up the line again the next morning hoping the fire hasn't crossed anywhere and start off again on the edge. There was no firefighting overtime payment for staff of course. The menu for breakfast and lunch was no different to that for tea. Bread three or four days old needs lots of tea to wash it down! Bless the local landowner who arrived with fresh bread - "I've just been into town!" - and fresh meat - "we've just killed a sheep."