Our firey runs the gauntlet
Under hot and windy conditions, a relatively small fire which started from a lightning strike near Jingellic in New South Wales just after Christmas developed into a firestorm on the 30th of December, sweeping across the Murray River into Victoria and devastating communities around Walwa, Cudgewa and Corryong.
Along with a number of other brigades from District 24, the Wodonga West CFA was pressed into the firefight for 22 hours straight as its crew worked across numerous locations in the Upper Murray, saving a number of properties and infrastructure as the fire front passed through.
My first assignment as part of a “strike team” (which consists of five tankers and Forward Command Vehicle) took place on New Year’s Eve, with our truck and crew tasked to Corryong from Tallangatta escorting a fuel tanker along the Murray Valley Highway.
Dangerous fire conditions including active fire along the route and the possibility of fallen trees and powerlines deemed an escort necessary.
With power and communications cut to the Upper Murray township, the fuel was desperately needed before daylight to keep the backup generator at the Corryong Hospital operational.
On any given day the 80- kilometre journey between the two towns is a relatively easy and scenic drive, passing through the pine plantations around Koetong and Shelley and providing spectacular views of the Snowy Mountains over the New South Wales border, particularly in winter.
However, with the sun starting to fade on New Year’s Eve the various strike teams rolled into the staging area in Tallangatta and the changeover of crews for the night shift was under way.
With a Maxi-Tankers Kenworth SAR towing a single trailer ready to roll up the Murray Valley Highway we headed off into the night about 9.30pm.
Leading the convoy was the strike team leader vehicle with the fuel tanker sandwiched between two CFA units.
The climb up “Tuckerbox” towards Koetong is always a slow and steady pull in a truck and this was the case with the convoy then making its way across past the forest camp at Shelley.
Making the descent down the Keelangie range, the first evidence of fire activity became apparent with the hills reflected by the burning pine forest on the eastern side of the Shelley plantation.
On towards Berringama the chatter over the radio indicated we would be heading through burning country and so it proved between Berringama and the Wabba Gap.
With the wind pushing the flames, a spot over had started another outbreak on the southern side of the highway, with the convoy pushing through as fire burnt unchecked on both sides of the road.
Upon climbing the Wabba Gap we encountered wandering cattle, along with burnt trees and branches on the road, making the trip a tense one with everyone keeping a lookout for hazards.
Just 7km short of Corryong at Colac Colac the road was blocked by a powerline which had fallen across the highway. We had been forewarned of the line, and after some discussion it was decided there was room at the side of the road for the convoy to pass through.
With the Wodonga West tanker picking a path around and under the lines to the side of the road, the Kenworth was guided through under the spotlights of the tanker and a couple of firefighters. With everyone past the final hurdle our convoy rolled through the outskirts of Corryong as the clock ticked over into 2020. The Kenworth peeled off the main street and up to the hospital to deliver its vital cargo, and our job was done.
A quick regroup and we were redeployed on asset protection in the Nariel Valley, keeping a close watch on the fire to ensure a pumping station for the Corryong town water supply was not impacted by the flames.
Fortunately, the weather overnight moderated somewhat and with dawn on New Year’s Day breaking all was relatively calm as we made our way back to Tallangatta and our shift change with the day crew.
A tense night but just one story out of the thousands that could be told about the Upper Murray fire of December 2019.