Confusion in the Night

Here Burnside (CFS) volunteer, Cameron Garner, vividly describes what he and his crew experienced in their 24 type appliance at a fire on Blackhill two years ago.

I recall a night-time tasking at Athelstone last fire season (1998/99). Although it did not cause too much of a problem at the time, the potential for a serious situation was definitely there.

It was decided to utilise about 10 heavy 4WD appliances to stop a back burn on a narrow ridge top, above Gorge Road. Though it was night and the temperature mild, there were strong and unpredictable gully winds blowing up the hillface and across the ridge.

With all the appliances in a line, the task commenced. The fire began to race along the ridge top and threatened to jump over the hill into inaccessible scrub, where it would have ravaged Blackhill Conservation Park and nearby houses.

My appliance was first on the line. We moved down the steep slope and quickly became engulfed in thick smoke, embers and incredible heat as we chased and tried to control the burn.

Unaware the following appliances had been held up, we ended up on our own in no-man’s land.

I was driving but didn’t know at the time that two members had got off the vehicle and were trying in vain to extinguish the leading edge of the fire with a HP line off a rear hose reel. The wind was so strong the water wasn’t even reaching the flames, even with the pump flat out.

From the driver’s position, the guys on the ground were invisible. The crew intercom crackled to life those still on the rear of the appliance were yelling there was a crew on the ground and they had lost sight of them.

My officer (Dave) instructed me to stop while he went in search of the team. They were near the front left of the truck sheltering from the intense radiant heat the fire was spewing at them. The temperature in the cab was rising rapidly and we were starting to cook. The guys on the back were trying in vain to cool the vehicle and tackle the fire.

The smoke became so thick we went into entrapment procedures. We put out a check call over the radio.

At this point we discovered another dilemma. The sector commander believed we were a different appliance and merely urged us to continue on. We realised then that we would have to rely on ourselves, and that we had no choice but try to continue down the hill.

Using the front spraybar and high-pressure lines, we cautiously continued. If we had stayed where we were, we would have fried.

Two power poles loomed out of the smoke...brake, wheels locked up, acceleration the only way to regain control. Water knocked off as we passed between the hazards into what seemed like a different world of white swirling smoke, black ash sticking to windscreen, an arc of menacing orange and red to the right, dancing blue and red flashes to the left from our beacons, voices from somewhere over our radio.

Smoke had penetrated the cabin, the air was getting hotter, eyes streaming, lungs filled with pain, voices coarse and rough.

Suddenly we broke free, the windscreen wipers cutting through the dirty air, clearing away the remains of a strange and smoky world.

But there was no time to breathe yet the fire was taking off again! But then salvation as a National Parks 14 appeared in front of us, backed up by another and then another still.

All of this lasted perhaps five minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime in the cab. We had survived and gained control of an animal that must have hated us, as we finally laid it to rest.

The sector commander appeared out of the darkness and said: Damn gutsy effort, you guys, great firefighting.

I guess now he’ll know what really happened?

Last updated 4 November 2014