EXCLUSIVE

Nambucca's RFS Brigade captains talk about the Valley's largest fire in decades

Photo of Kian Rd fire by Valla brigade member William Barnett
Photo of Kian Rd fire by Valla brigade member William Barnett

It's the largest major fire this Valley has seen in decades.

The Kian Rd fire has now burned through over 1500 hectares of bushland.

Local RFS and Parks and Wildlife crews have been successfully laying down containment lines on the northern edge - along Upper Buckrabendinni Rd.

But Belinda Devine in the Fire Control Centre said there are still active fires just west of South Arm.

She said the combination of those active fires and the current forecast of increasingly hot and windy weather is concerning.

Gumma brigade captain Trevor Stride has been a volunteer firefighter now for 23 years and said the last major fire he remembers in the Nambucca was the Morans Road Complex fire, about 20 years ago.

I was also a part of Nambucca's contingent to the Grafton Fires in 1994. I compare the fires I have seen over the last week to those, but the most recent ones are probably a little worse given the current dryness and inaccessibility.

Gumma RFS Brigade Captain Trevor Stride

His crew, although few in number, have been very active on the fire front, with most members pulling very long hours over the weekend.

"The majority of our time has been spent monitoring and protecting houses along Upper Buckrabendinni Rd," he said.

He said his crew spent five hours putting in a strategic backburn around three properties on Saturday evening.

"I'm a fortunate Captain, my crew have also volunteered to do other tasks such as deliver meals to the fire ground, relay communications, and put in backburns.

"But the hardest job of all, and the most important one, is to put out burning logs, stumps and hotspots along the containment line directly after the burn has been put in. This is called 'blacking out' and by far the most difficult of jobs.

"It is dirty, smoky and hot work that takes its toll on our volunteers, but gives a good area that strengthens the containment of the fire and keeps it from going into unburnt vegetation."

Paulla Brownhill is captain of the Nambucca Headquarters Rural Fire Brigade.

She has about 20 years of firefighting experience under her belt, but said the way this fire has behaved has been surprising.

She said the conditions on Sunday proved difficult in getting their five kilometre containment line started.

"It was hard to get down the incline - it was so steep," she said.

"And it gave off a lot of awfully bad smoke."

The impact of the smoke around the Valley as shot by you

Paulla said the smoke was so severe at times that they couldn't see two metres in front of them.

"We were relying pretty heavily on radio communications, especially when vehicles were coming," she said.

"It was that bad I had my P2 mask on, but had to put my hand over it just to get some fresh air. The smoke was so thick it was even getting through the goggles.

"It was very, very slow and very hard-going. I think it's a sign of the dryness and harsh terrain.

"Plus we have to actively conserve water in the midst of this drought, so we're fighting fires a little differently these days."

On Sunday the trucks almost ran out of water, with a 45 minute wait until more arrived. That's when the dry earth techniques came in handy.

Rakehoes, knapsacks, strategic backburning, diggers and graders are the go-to tools and techniques that are being employed.

Photo taken by Valla Rural Fire Brigade training officer Chris Knight: "That grader was amazing. 2-3 trees across the road - of decent size - and it smashed them off to the side. Kept our crews safe."

Photo taken by Valla Rural Fire Brigade training officer Chris Knight: "That grader was amazing. 2-3 trees across the road - of decent size - and it smashed them off to the side. Kept our crews safe."

"We call this dry firefighting. It can be very efficient if implemented correctly," Trevor said.

While Paulla's unit is currently hampered by an out-of-use leaking truck, and all members have a day job, that didn't stop them from being out there on the front line over the weekend.

"I'm in awe of some of these people and how they can keep going and going," she said.

"Part of my job as captain is to make sure they don't burn out. Even when they're keen as mustard and want to go out, I'll have to pull them back and rest them.

"People don't realise that a lot of times these volunteers will miss their meals - pagers go off just when you're about to sit down to dinner and most times you're out the door and fighting until after midnight.

"But we all take it in our stride - it's just what we do. I'm pretty proud of my active little bunch who are all going above and beyond."

Photo taken by Nambucca HQ Rural Fire Brigade

Photo taken by Nambucca HQ Rural Fire Brigade

She said it was a joy to work on one of the support trucks and deliver hot meals to the crews fresh from the Macksville Ex-Services Club.

But even that came with its dangers - on stepping out of the truck with the food in hand, a death adder slithered a little too close for comfort in front of her.

In spite of the challenges this fire is throwing at them, both Paulla and Trevor are grateful for the opportunity for some hands-on experience it is giving their brigades' newer members.

"We have some very passionate people in the RFS and, for me, the opportunity for these volunteers to put some of their training into practice is very pleasing to see," Trevor said.

Paulla has quite a few younger members in her crew.

I'm just so proud of my crew - their keenness to learn. I look at them and think the future's in good hands.

Nambucca Headquarters Rural Fire Brigade Captain Paulla Brownhill

Pride is a common feeling amongst our Valley's captains at the moment.

"Me, well I'm that proud of my team, there is no words to describe," Trevor said.

"The RFS has a very strong network. Usually of people that give huge amounts of their time and dedication and that's not just when a fire is happening. As firefighters, we have to because we are consistently putting our life in the hands of others. This can only be done with a solid foundation of mutual respect, training, teamwork, safety and dedication.

"Lastly, the brigade cannot function without the support of our loved ones; our partners, kids, family and friends, even our pets. They also give us up for what can be long amounts of time when they don't know how we are going or when we will be home.

"My crew's personal support is never far from my mind when on the fire line. As an experienced firefighter that I'm friends with says - 'everyone goes home!'"

Thankyou for your tireless efforts.

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