Australian fires: On the front line with former North Devon resident
A former Braunton resident has been speaking of the devastation of the Australian fires that have already claimed the lives of two of his colleagues.
50-year-old Brian Harris is an Aldi logistics manager in Australia when he is not fire fighting. Picture: Brian Harris
Brian Harris is a volunteer fire fighter in Western Sydney with the NSW Rural Fire Service but grew up in North Devon and his mother still lives in Braunton, while his sister lives in Bideford.
He 50-year-old and his colleagues from the small Shanes Park fire station near the Blue Mountains have been working tirelessly to try and save properties and lives in the path of the fires that have engulfed their country in recent weeks. For some it has cost their lives – on December 19 two members of the relief crew Brian’s team handed over to were killed in the same area where he and his team had been working all day. A volunteer fire fighter of 10 years and a driver, Brian emigrated to Australia 19 years ago and married an Australian – they have a six-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old stepson.
Australian fire fighters say the fires are burning with an intense heat they haven’t felt before. Picture: Brian Harris
His station was involved in the severe Blue Mountain bush fires of 2013 and he told the Gazette: “Since the fires in 2013 we have been warned a big one is coming. It started in September on the Queensland boarder and moved south.
“Everything is so dry at the moment with the drought. The fires are burning with an intense heat that we haven’t felt before. “Our briefings are very much the same: ‘You will not stop the fire, protect life and property and when it passes move onto the next’.
“When at the fire we do what we have to do and look out from each other. It’s only the next day when watch the news you think, wow that was bigger than I remember.
Brian Harris and his colleagues from Shanes Park fire station heading into a fire.
Picture: Brian Harris
“I was working during the day at the same fire that killed Geoff and Andrew. Our strike team handed over to them earlier in the night. I knew them both especially Geoff as I worked with him on a number of fires even passed my response driving test with him.”
In his day job, Brian is a logistics manager for Aldi supermarket, but is able to ask for emergency service leave if he is called on. He said the crew attends more than 200 local incidents every year and have taken an active role in the recent major fires around Sydney, including the weekend of January 4-5. He told the Gazette on Tuesday, January 7: “A normal fire season we have one or two large fires, controlled within a week or two.
Night time in the fire zone in Australia. Picture: Brian Harris
This year within 90 minutes of my home, 900,000 hectares of grass and bush land have burnt and are still burning. “I am crewing a truck in two days to help try and save homes in the Blue Mountains with a weather forecast of 40 degrees.
“It’s probably hardest on my wife and family who are often sitting at home imagining the worst and getting out of bed at 2am when the pager goes off for local calls.” You can follow how Brian and his colleagues are getting on via the Shanes Park Rural Fire Brigade Facebook page.
An area of devastation in New South Wales after a fire has passed by.
Picture: Brian Harris
Two days in the life of a volunteer Australian fire fighter
Brian Harris with his daughter Emily, aged six, at a fundraising barbecue the Shanes Park station crew held to buy extra equipment. Picture: Brian Harris
Advised brigade Captain that I am available for the following day, as the weather forecast was for a bad fire danger day. At 16:00hrs a message came through that I was required to crew our truck for a strike team (5-6 Trucks) the following day. I immediately messaged my boss, to inform him that I would like to take Emergency service leave the following day and that I have arranged cover for my team.
I quickly received a reply stating he was happy for me to go. Then I asked the boss at home for emergency service leave which can be a much harder negotiation. Thursday 19th
08:15hrs Met at the Shanes Park station to check over the truck, swap out radio batteries, top up ice for the esky, bottles of water and sports drinks etc. On my crew were Bill, Steve, Chris and Wayne, between us we had of over 70 years’ experience.
09:00hrs Joined Cumberland Strike team Alpha at NSW Fire and Rescue Training Centre at Erskine Park. We were treated to breakfast and a briefing of the day’s operations and weather conditions.
During the morning other strike teams were called in for briefing and dispatched to various fire grounds. 12:40hrs Our Strike team was called into the briefing room and advised we were being responded (lights and sirens) to Bargo.
We were handed snack boxes for our trucks as lunch had not arrived and sent South. On route we reprogrammed our radios to the local command channel and listened out for activity to try and understand the situation and conditions we were driving into. 14:00hrs to 16:00hrs
After leaving the highway we entered an active fire ground very quickly. We were quickly tasked to a street which was about to be impacted by fire. We drove our truck into the rear of a property where we quickly assessed the situation and assets (buildings and livestock).
The property had a house, large shed with tractor, a horse and chickens in coup. We tried to stop the fire from getting to the shed which was the closest asset to the fire. At this point the fire turn and was starting to crown through the top of the trees towards the property next door.
Our truck was moved back to a position to where the neighbours’ house could be protected and the crew could also have a safe place to be if required. We managed to protect both homes, buy attacking the fire as it came close to the home and steering it around the property. I took time to try and keep the horse calm, it seemed to welcome the human contact.
When our truck came close to running out of water we moved out and handed over to another crew to ensure the home was secure. Leaving the gates open to allow the horse to escape if it required. 16:00hrs to 17:45hrs
We refilled with water and we were immediately dispatched to Balmoral to get ahead of the fire to again help protect property. On route we were stopped and asked to protect a property by a local group officer, we quickly assessed the house along with a crew from another truck and decided the house was practically un-defendable. (90 mins later we passed where this house was and all that was standing was a chimney) This was when our strike team leader started to call us to a location the other side of town which was about to be impacted by fire.
On arrival, we were tasked to protect 5 homes in the path of the fire, all homes we occupied with residents who had stayed to help protect, with one truck located at each. These homes had a more clear space around them than previously and were very defendable. The fire passed through with very little incident which allowed us to have some snacks and drinks.
17:45hrs to 18:30hrs Sent back towards Buxton and diverted to Picton Lakes Village to protect a number of heritage listed properties in the old village. Immediately on arrival we noticed fire impacting on properties and got to work with the assistance of helicopter support.
The challenge with these properties were grass fires running across into weatherboard homes, embers being carried on the wind and heat generated by burning trees. Over the next 45mins our strike team managed to save all properties in the village. 18:30hrs to 19:30hrs
We were sent back in the direction of Balmoral to check on another fire reported to be impacting houses. On arrival no homes were found to be at immediate risk. This is where the strike team caught up and started to share stories of the day.
19:30hrs We were told to make our way to Victoria Park Picton to change over crew. On arrival we were greeted by Rapid Relief Team offering food and drinks.
Later Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons joined us to just shake every ones hand and ask about our day. 21:00hrs The buses arrived with our relief crews on board, trucks were handed over and we boarded the buses back to our stations arriving back around 22:30hrs.
Friday 20th 05:30hrs
Woke to a message from my Captain asking me to call him.
He informed me that two members of a neighboring station and the reliving strike team the night before had been killed in the very area we were working that day.
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