08 January, 2020

Not on my Watch!

What we were sure was our last look at the shop
As we escaped Wingello at Midnight on 5 January we thought we had seen the last of our little Wingello Village Store.
But that was not to be.
The captain of the Wingello Rural Fire Brigade was in charge of the very intense, fast moving and dangerous fire currently attacking his home of Wingello.
He saw that we had retreated from the shop and was firm in his resolve to ensure that the village would live through this.
"Not on my watch!" he declared, and stationed one of the precious firetrucks in front of the shop and tasked his brave firefighters to "Save the shop!"

The team of Wingello 1
I need to provide some background of how the volunteer rural fire brigades work here in New South Wales. It is similar in all country areas throughout Australia. The funding and control of the volunteer fire services has changed over time but basically it is now run like this.
The NSW Rural Fire Service is responsible for the funding and oversight of each of the country towns and villages that have a volunteer fire brigade. Depending on each location's requirements and abilities they are allocated the appropriate fire trucks, equipment, uniforms and training all up to pretty rigorous Australian fire standards.
The brigade is then responsible for the maintenance of all that equipment and for the training of the volunteers. The rigorous training program covers many areas relating to fighting fires from the nature of how fires work, the science (and art) of fighting fires, controlling and defeating fire, how to defend homes and property, a very strong focus on safety in such a dangerous activity and more - all aimed at ensuring all volunteers can do the job not only adequately, but with professional skills.
Watching the fire approach through the treeline
The volunteers are not paid. This is not their full or part time job. This is what they do to give back to their local communities.
The call may go out and they will answer to respond to a house fire, motor vehicle accident, downed tree, fire report or any number of other emergency response requests. Although the primary purpose is fighting fires that threaten their homes, they are also used for many other emergency response tasks. Some units also have first response medical training, normally if the brigade is larger.

If a fire is reported and more assistance is needed, other brigades will be called in to assist. This is co-ordinated by various regional and state management teams, headed by whoever is mostly responsible for the location in which the fire occurs.
On the night of 5 January everyone was ready for a series of ember attacks from the Currowan fire. Wingello expected a busy night, but so was everyone else. There were no extra fire trucks to spare as they were needed everywhere else threatened by fire on this 42C (108F) day.
But when the word went out that Wingello was not just being hit by an ember attack but a full blown fire storm in the forest that was over 10km (7 miles) from the fire front and the village was threatened, fire trucks and their fire fighters began racing at full speed to assist. This wasn't a case of the local brigade holding the fire and the others coming in to help mop up. This was a case of Wingello is burning, everyone help!
The brigade in action
While locals were evacuating from the fire, these firefighters were charging in to defend a place many of them had never been to and some would not have even known about.

Our Wingello brigade had recently been assisting in the fight in Buxton and Balmoral, saving many houses from the terrible fires there. But this night was different. They weren't just defending "someone's" home, they were defending their homes. It wasn't the house on Park Street, it was the home of Michael and Helen, or the home of May or Ron. Each fire did not just threaten a house, it threatened a home of a person they knew as a fellow villager.

So this fight was personal. Allocating the firetruck to defend the shop with the command that it must be saved, "We will not lose the shop on my watch!", is what local brigades do when they defend their homes.

Whilst a normal shift may go for up to 12 hours and the crews are given rotations, this was Wingello. This was their home. They worked a 24 hour shift before someone realised why they were tired. But by then the worst was over.
The Bug has died.
The shop was saved and so many more houses were saved right at the doorsteps. Losing a dozen homes was a tragedy and the fire fighters felt incredibly saddened that they couldn't save the houses that burned, but the houses they did save! The deputy captain's property was burning and the nature of all these self sacrificing men and women was to fight the house most in need. They often would be reluctant to call someone to save their house as someone else was relying on them. But despite the blaze burning brightly through the rest of the property, his house was saved.

Often people call these brave men and women heroes, but like so many others that do this kind of work, they often shy away from the title. "We're just doing our job," they say modestly. That makes it very hard for us to provide the appropriate recognition when they often shrug off the thanks, but too bad.

Thank you to our men and women in our fire brigade. We know that your work and the time, preparation and training you have put in on every Wednesday night for many years, combined with the help from fellow villagers doing their part to save their homes meant Wingello was saved.
We may have lost a dozen homes, but we didn't lose 50 homes or more. The village lives and together we are rapidly rebuilding and helping those that have lost their houses and other property.

Thank you.

(PS Most of these photos were taken by brigade members in brief respites during the fight)


Susanne Carter said...

Thank you, no words can accurately say thanks, but thank you to all the volunteers.

Unknown said...

Real heroes every last one of them. RFS teams everywhere have done the most amazing job.