25 August 2023

What the bushfire brigade fears most: the call that never comes

| John Thistleton
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rural firefighter in front of fire truck

Matthew Bachali recommends having the Fires Near Me app at hand and a plan with several escape routes from your property, and a meeting place for family members, ahead of the upcoming bushfire season. Photo: Middle Arm/Wayo Rural Fire Brigade.

A volunteer bushfire brigade deputy captain near Goulburn, Matthew Bachali, says people shouldn’t try to guess the seriousness of an outbreak of a blaze.

“I would rather have 20 Triple-0 calls to something that is nothing, rather than people going, ‘Oh, it’s probably nothing’ and they don’t call it in,” he said.

“I would rather have 10 trucks on the road and get there and say, ‘Turn them all around and go home’ than someone think it is nothing, and before you know it, I’m calling in 10 trucks and by the time they get there they need 100 trucks.”

After a winter of watching ominous Northern Hemisphere fires, landholders will be aware of the potential for a horror season over summer in Australia.

A member of the Middle Arm/Wayo Rural Fire Brigade, Matthew says personally, the 2019-20 bushfire season was the worst he has experienced. He dispatched fellow members to the Green Wattle Creek bushfire near Taralga and Wombeyan Caves, which burnt through more than 278,700 hectares. He stayed at home, on alert, with one of the brigade’s trucks in his driveway in case a fire started in his area.

If the two wet years since that horrible season have pushed bushfires from people’s minds, what’s potentially ahead this coming fire season will swiftly bring it all back.

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“We have been very lucky in the last few years, our brigade hasn’t had as many callouts, but even now, and we are in the fire off-season, we have had callouts to three or four grass fires and escaped pile burns,” he said.

“We have had to go and get on top of it, which we have done quickly. If it is a sign of what’s ahead, it could become more prevalent,” he said.

Ultimately, that will depend on the weather. But other factors that contribute to an out-of-control fire are in the brigade’s sights. The unit is responsible for a large triangle of land bounded by Crookwell Road from Goulburn to Pejar Dam, across to Middle Arm Road and back down to Goulburn, covering areas such as Mt Wayo and Woodhouselee.

“Recently in training, we have been focusing on going through our fire trails making sure we can have access into areas and getting an idea of what the fuel load is, and whether it is worth putting crews in there on a bad day or waiting for the fire to come to an area that is more defendable,” Matthew said.

Group of rural firefighters

Volunteers of the Middle Arm/Wayo Rural Fire Brigade have been inspecting fire trails and taking note of the heavy fuel loads around Goulburn. Photo: Middle Arm/Wayo Rural Fire Brigade.

“People don’t realise how quickly a grass fire can move. You can have significant flame height and quite a fast-moving grass fire in an area that will push through very quickly with hot and dry conditions and get into the bushland and keep going.

“Forecasts are suggesting we could have a very hot and dry summer. The grassland will cure a lot more, so obviously there will be no moisture in that grass and it’ll burn a lot quicker.”

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Gundary Rural Fire Brigade captain James Cheetham said his district south of Goulburn had a lot of carry-over feed that, coupled with predictions of a hot dry summer, was alarming for his members. Most especially because a lot of the area was open grasslands, where fire could travel quickly.

Gundary Brigade has invited landholders to its ‘Get ready’ day on Sunday, 17 September between 2pm and 5pm at Gundary Station at Tirrannaville. It’s the ideal time for many new residents from Sydney, Canberra and Goulburn who have moved on to new subdivisions in the area to meet the brigade and learn the importance of having a safety plan in case of fire.

Helicopter fighting fire

A helicopter works with fire units during a bushfire near Goulburn in 2015. Photo: Middle Arm/Wayo Rural Fire Brigade.

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