Being the Group Communications Officer and a Lieutenant of my brigade, I was privvy to the briefings given by our Operations Manager prior to Black Saturday. It was clear that tomorrow wasn't going to like other "hot" days. While I've only been a member of the CFA for 8 years, even I got that gut feeling that things could turn out seriously bad within the next 24 hours while I was briefing some of our brigade members back at the station later that night. The tightness in my stomach, almost loosing my voice while I was talking. I don't think at this stage it was fear, but extreme nervousness. We spent some time double and triple checking the trucks before going home to get some sleep in anticpation of what could be coming.

Saturday morning came and it was up early -- we had a Car Show happening at Wandin park which had been planned for months and we were providing car parking services. I spent the morning running around between the fire station and Wandin park making sure we had everything we needed, crews had plenty of water etc. I managed a quick visit to the Woori Yallock ICC to make sure my comms crew were there and they had everything they needed.

Fortunately, the organizers of the car show decided to cancel the event around 1300hrs. Not many people were coming due to the heat, and those that were weren't staying long.

1330hrs: Our crews from the car parking were all back at the station in the air conditioning drinking and enjoying some icy-poles. Walking outside of the meeting room really highlighted how hot it was outside. The combination of the ambient heat and hot wind felt like you'd opened the oven door instead of the door to outside. Some members went home to rest and recover in the comfort of their home, while around a dozen of us stayed at the station.

1348hrs: We had been watching from the front of our station the smoke from Kilmore grow when the first ALERT page for the day came in. "Column of Smoke Issuing, Victoria Rd". Nothing found after investigation and deemed to be the Kilmore fire. False Alarm, Good Intent. Let's hope all our calls today are like that.

1410hrs: I think it was sometime around now that I notice we had "smoke light" - that eerie orange tint over everything from the smoke filtering the sun. I think about the same time we noticed blackened leaves and bits of bark starting to fall to the ground around us.

The smoke from the Kilmore fire towered up into the sky and directly overhead the Yarra Valley:

Kilmore Smoke Cloud

1430hrs: We spotted the Murrundindi fire due north from our station. The speed this fire grew was amazing. Within 15 minutes it had become bigger than the Kilmore fire from where we were sitting. Someone mentioned that all the resources in that area had been deployed to Kilmore and Kinglake so there was no-one fighting this fire. I didn't know at the time and still don't know if it was true.

The smoke from the Murrundindi fire mushroomed into the sky. The dark patch across the top of the photo is the smoke from the Kilmore fire:

Murrundindi Smoke Cloud

1500hrs: Time becomes a big blur from here. Yarra Glen responded to a G&S on the Healesville Yarra Glen Rd. Initial radio traffic included reports of smoke showing and a report from St Leonard's fire tower that it was building quickly and suggested that they may need 10 tankers. I can't remember the details about what other jobs were going on in the area, but I'm pretty sure there was only Ranges Group Strike Team (1334) and Yarra Valley Group Strike Team (1394) left available. We started getting ready for the page if Yarra Glen did "Make Tankers 10". The last radio traffic I remember here was a Make Tanker's 5. We stood down and went back to our state of hightened alert. Watching. Waiting. A phone call came sometime around here from our Group Officer advising that 1394 is being activated and being sent to Coldstream. The pager network is massively overloaded, so phone trees were activated and trucks began to roll. I started getting our members to move their cars to allow room for the truck as the assembly point was our fire station. Crew Leader for our truck was our Captain, so while he was on his way, I started filling out T Cards and otehr associated paperwork for Strike Team. Then I started preparing crew lists for Strike Team 1393 - our second strike team. Stupidly I tried sending a pager message for crews to call me if they were available - a message that wouldn't be received until 0130hrs the next morning.

1530hrs: The Strike Team was almost assembled - except for 1 truck that was missing. A quick phone call discovered that they were still sitting outside their station! They were told in no uncertain terms to get themselves up to the assembly point post-haste. When they did arrive, the only had 3 crew and no-crew leader! I did a 15 second hand-over of the organization for 1393 to another member, before grabbing my gear and one of our rookies and jumping on the last truck bound for Coldstream. In the rush to get the strike team on the road, it was overlooked to advise our central CAD dispatch center that we had been activated and 5 tankers were committed. This left the CAD center believing there were more fire trucks still in station than actually were and would result in us recieving many emergency pager messages throughout the afternoon and evening.

It was around this time I'm told that the first 'pan pan' and 'mayday' calls were made. I'm led to believe it may have come from North Warrandyte Tanker. I didn't hear them as we were on a different radio channel. I'm glad I didn't.

After some initial confusion about the convoy radio channel, and where we were meant to be going (us and another truck were initially told to do asset protection at the Melbourne Gun Club), we got to Domaine Chandon winery on the Maroondah Highway just out of Coldstream where we were told to do asset protection. Just before we arrived, I remember hearing that Strike Team 1393 had been deployed not long after us with whatever crew could be found urgently. This took 10 trucks and 50 fire fighters out of our area and to the Coldstream area. It gave me that sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing that both of our groups Strike Teams had been mobilized out of our own area. I knew my mum and dad were still at home planning to defend their house if the fire got that far. If something happened back there, they'd be on their own with no available tankers anywhere nearby.

My three crew members got on the back of the truck and we started patrolling through the thick smoke, around the unfamiliar winery and putting water on any flames we could see that were near any of the buildings. We drove past a drain that had some kind of gas escaping at high pressure. It sounded like a ruptured Natural Gas main, but we couldn't smell gas, and there was flame very close to it and it hadn't ignited so we concluded it wasn't flammable, if indeed it was a gas leak of some kind. I still don't know what that was. We rounded a corner and passed several 90kg gas bottles sitting next to a small gas bullet. Duly noted where they were and wetted them down briefly. They were fairly well protected by buildings and without much vegetation around, but we were wary of them anyway. We drove through a maze of sheds for I think 10 minutes, dowsing any flames we could see through the smoke before starting to trace our way back out. As we were heading out, the tyres on some machinery we couldn't save started exploding nearby. We made the decision leave the area and regroup with the Strike Team Leader.

Throughout this, our pagers were receiving emergency messages what seemed like constantly. I think we recieved something in the vicinity of 25 - 30 emergency pages in the following 12 hours. That's more than we'd normally get in 3 months! Every pager message seemed to be reporting a fire closer and closer to home, but there was nothing we could do but trust that those who had stayed to look after the home patch were OK and able to get the trucks they needed.

We were soon retasked to take the place of another tanker at the end of Tarrawarra Road who was protecting a house but was out of water. As we drove down Tarrawarra Rd, there were entire rows of Cyprus trees alight down someones driveway. These trees were 30 - 40 meters tall and fully involved, glowing from top to bottom. The heat radiating off them as we drove past at a distance of about 30 meters was intense enough that I had to turn my face away, even with the window of the truck shielding me. The severity of the situation was starting to sink in, but only a little. It was still very surreal. From along Tarrawarra Rd we had a bit of a vantage point to see over the surrounding area, and between the smoke, all we could see was fire and burnt paddocks.

A radio message came across that an eldery gentleman was missing somewhere nearby and to keep an eye out.

We got to the house at the end of the road and did a quick survey of the area. It was a nice house, stone walls, landscaped gardens that had been looked after. It seemed to be at low risk from the approaching fire. We turned the truck around and started wetting down the garden beds that were directly adjacent the house. Turning the truck around posed it's own problems. The smoke was too thick for the driver to see the guide when he stood at the back of the truck. Of course if the guide moved forward, he couldn't see where the truck was reversing.

We wetted the garden beds down until our water was down to our crew safety level. For those who aren't exposed to fire brigade terminology, this is the low level amount of water that we must maintain in bush fire situations for our own protection. This was an outcome of the Linton Inquiry. We made the truck up as quick as possible and started heading back out along Tarrawarra Rd to find water. As we moved up the road, there were people. Residents. A young lady stopped us at her house and told us her neighbour behind her was trying to save his house but was having trouble and needed our help. We couldn't do anything. We were down to our Crew Safety level and I couldn't risk the safety of my crew if something went wrong. There was way too many voices on the radio, all asking for help, for us to try and get another truck who had water to come. We had to move on - the sooner we moved on and found water, the sooner we could do something useful again.

Somewhere around here one bit of radio traffic is stuck in my mind - someone in Dixon's Creek was almost shouting in the radio "will someone please give me a damn tanker!?". You could hear the desperation in his voice. There were still people out there in a lot more trouble than we were in here, but there was nothing we could do.

Further along Tarrawarra Rd, we found what I believe was the eldery gentleman mentioned on the radio before. There was a middle-aged man and woman with him looking after him. Family? Neighbours? Strangers? I don't know. Probably never will.

Not much further again and an eldery lady was standing at the side of the road. We stopped, and she stood at the drivers door. She looked up at us before reaching her hand out and struggling to form her words. "My house......" she stuttered. Her outstretched arm trying to take hold of the remains of her house in the paddock beyond. Trying to grasp the memories, possessions, family heirlooms and her life that existed within that house. Looking across the paddock, the house was fully involved, and had already collapsed. There was nothing we could do here. While many things on the afternoon and evening of Saturday 7th Febuary 2009 are still a blur, the image of this lady and the recording of her voice will forever be locked in my memory. The feeling of helplessness at this point, and the futility of what we were acheiving was dawning on me. Up until this point, I had been running on adrenaline for the last couple of hours.

1900hrs: We exited Tarrawarra Rd and headed back to Domaine Chandon which was where we were filling from as they had a nice big damn, and some other (I presume Coldstream) fire fighters were setting up a quick fill pump there. We spoke to the Strike Team Leader who told us to catch our breath for 10 minutes as we were being redeployed shortly. We took the opportunity to take our 'yellows' off and have a rest while the trucks were filled with water. Shortly after we were on the road again Code 1 to Healesville. We stopped briefly at Healesville Fire Station before being sent north to Chum Creek where we were to meet up with a DSE officer at the Chum Creek Fire Station and he would take us to do asset protection on a small housing estate tucked away in the bush. We never did get to that estate. On the road there we came across a caravan blocking the road and stuck in the road-side drain. I couldn't quite figure out how it got there, but there were a few people and vehicles around sorting it out, so we squeezed past and further up towards the fire. As we continued along, from up in the passenger seat of the truck, I could see house after house burnt to the ground. Houses with no trees around them were gone, and yet houses surrounded by bush had somehow been spared the wrath of the flames. While heading up the road, we got another emergency pager message for a Structure Fire at an elderly care facility in Healesville. Our strike team was quickly redeployed again to attend and investigate this fire. Fortunately it turned out to be a false alarm.

2200hrs: Again, I have no idea if this time is accurate. We were back in Healesville and parked on the main street. We were greeted by the locals with offers of food and drink. Most of us hadn't eaten since lunch, and had only been able to grab the occasional bottle of water. One cafe in particular went out of their way to make toasted ham, cheese and tomato foccacias for our whole strike team. I have never tasted a better dinner! The support from the locals was a pleasing morale boost and won't be forgotten.

Just as the last of the foccacias were being handed out, we were being redeployed to Yarra Glen Code 1 to assist with asset protection in Dixon's Creek. Much of what came after this I can't remember. I remember we spent some time at Yarra Glen waiting for specific directions as to our task, then we patrolled along the Melba Highway from Yarra Glen to the bottom of Mt Slide. We came across one property with a grass fire approaching their house. We stopped in and doused the fire. As we were leaving the property, I spotted a sillouette against the flames in the paddock near the drive that were still backing down the hill towards the highway. We stopped on the highway and I walked in to investigate. The flames were running parallel to and approximately 50 meters from the fence line. I found in the paddock a farmed with a sack, literally beating the flames out. He was trying to save that last little bit of grass for his animals. The rest of his property had burnt and that was all that was left. Without it, the animals will starve. Even the grass that was there wasn't going to be much to sustain them. I wanted to help this cocky, but the paddock was too steep to get the tanker in, and it was too far off the road for us to do anything useful. I had to leave him to do what he had to do and we had to continue on.

We soon found ourselves at the old hedge maze (EDIT: this was actually Immerse Winery) where we found one of their buildings fully involved in fire. There was nothing we could do to save it, so we were forced to sit and watch it burn, while ensuring the fire didn't spread to the other nearby buildings. Once the fire there had died down, we were on the move again further up the highway where we found mroe houses with the fire approaching. We did what we could wetting down garden beds and any spot fires around the houses, but couldn't stay and had to move on. By this time of the night, the weather had calmed and cooled which had reduced the fire intensity.

There's a blank in my memory after this. By about 0400hrs on Sunday, I remember the words of Slim Dusty when he said "my eyes full of sand from the way they feel". I remember we finally got to catch some sleep while waiting on a road for the fire to come down to us (it didn't get to us), and then falling asleep on the bus trip back to the staging area at Wesburn sometime after the sun came up on Sunday. I'm not even sure how I got home as my car was still at our station.

That's most of what I can recall from my experience on Black Saturday, 7th Febuary 2009. I had a crew of members from different brigades, including 2 rookies on my crew that day; they had a baptism of fire in the most literal sense, and they did their brigades and the CFA proud as far as I'm concerned. Their minimum skills training flowed naturally and we all worked our arses off and did the best job we could.

It wasn't until I woke up Sunday afternoon that the enorminty of Black Saturday started to sink in. The adreneline was gone from my system, and news reports were starting to filter out about the poor souls who didn't escape in time, and stories of entire towns like Marysville being wiped off the map.

The past 2 weeks has been a physical, emotional and psychological rollercoaster. More than once since Black Saturday I have found myself struggling to make the smallest decisions like what to have for lunch or dinner. I have walked around Safeway for 45 minutes looking and trying to come to a conclusion for something to eat. There has been anger, dispair, frustration, fear and joy among many of the emotions recently. If you know a fire fighter who has been involved in these events, I urge you to understand that they may be going through these same emotions. Support your fire fighter; the biggest reason we have such a large and professional volunteer fire fighting force in Victoria is because of the support provided by each volunteer's family and friends.

I am awed at mother nature and our country; a land of vast beauty and diversity, yet capable of dibolical destruction. Despite the events of Saturday 7th Febuary 2009, I love and respect this country, and won't trade living here for anything.

UPDATE A short news article about the ESTA call-takers who were on shift to recieve triple-0 calls on Black Saturday. These are some of the forgotten pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of that day:,,25120598-2862,00.html