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My favourite bushfire: a good news story from the wandoo forest

Wandoo forest in the Helena River Catchment of Western Australia

Anyone with a lifetime involvement with bushfires can recall a horror story or two. Most of us old-timers, long retired from actual firefighting, still wake up occasionally in the middle of the night, especially if it is February and a nor’wester is howling at the window. And we remember a calamitous bushfire from back in the day. There was that time you just about had the thing, and the dozer broke down. There were the times you fought, and lost, and retreated, and fought and lost and retreated again, and were saved in the end only by rain. There was the night your Assistant Forester was badly burned, trapped between two spotfires, and the time you came across the charred remains of a mob of kangaroos enmeshed in a wire a fence, having been unable to escape a searing wildfire.

Or you remember the smoking ruins of a burnt-out town.

The ruins of Nanga Brook – the morning after the Dwellingup Fire

Most of my firey mates have memories like these. And, like old soldiers back from The Front, we mostly keep them to ourselves. Just one of those unbidden jolts of memory that ruin a good day. Maybe there is even a tear or two for mates now hid in death’s dateless night.

Strangely, given the nature of bushfires, there have also been good times. These are the good news bushfire stories that the public never hears, that never make it onto the TV news or into the papers. Those times when everything clicked – the potential fireground had been effectively prepared and damage mitigation carried out; the crews were trained and disciplined; detection and response had been rapid; and access to the fire straight-forward. The whole thing was over and done with inside a couple of hours, and we would be home in time for cakes and ale.

I particularly rejoice in the memory of one such event. I like to remember it as “my favourite bushfire”, or sometimes “the best bushfire I ever attended”. And just as old firefighters usually brood alone on the bad times, we love to share a yarn about the good ones. Few other people are interested in these good news stories (especially journalists – to them, a disaster averted is totally un-newsworthy), but old firies love to remember the good times, and the stories recounted are usually greeted with a soft and appreciative chuckle.

Here is my ‘good news’ story … and like all of its ilk, there is a sting in the tale (to coin a phrase), a lesson reinforced.

It was the summer of 1967/68, and I was a forester in Western Australia, Officer in Charge of a forest district that encompassed a large swathe of the northern jarrah forest and the wandoo forests of the Helena River catchment. Protecting the forest, and neighbouring communities from bushfires was our Number One priority, especially over the hot, dry summer months.

On the day I am now recalling, I was hosting a visit from the Department’s Safety Officer Jack Marshall.

Senior Forester Jack Marshall, in the days when he was Departmental Safety Officer

I used to love Jack’s regular visits. He was a grizzled old field forester, with 50 years of firefighting behind him. He had been a Sergeant in the AIF during World War II, and this was followed by a lifetime of experience in the jarrah and karri forests. He had been an overseer of a forestry gang, and then a field officer, climbing through the ranks to its pinnacle. I especially relished the fact that he was one of those classic bushman storytellers – he not only had a thousand interesting yarns, but the ability to tell them in a lively and humorous way.

Back in the 1960s industrial safety was only just being introduced to forestry, and one of Jack’s main jobs was to convince a sceptical workforce that it was needed. The whole Workplace Safety thing has gone way too far these days, with some ridiculous constraints, but back then there was a high rate of accident and injury in the bush, and the way things were done had to change. Jack had been appointed Departmental Safety Officer because he knew the bush, he knew the business, he was completely respected … and because he got results.

The old forestry office at Mundaring Weir

Jack arrived at the old forestry office at The Weir “on the dot”, as he always did. We took my vehicle and started off on a round of visits to the various worksites in the district – the workshops, the roading crew, the tree-markers and the gangs. The latter were working out at Beraking pine plantation that day and we reached them just on crib-time. It was midsummer, and one of those killer days you get in this part of the world at that time of the year. The whole landscape throbbed and shimmered with heat. The temperature was well over the 40 degrees mark by the time we pulled in and gathered the men around for Jack to say his piece.

But just as we were about to get down to business, the VHF radio in my car crackled and the young lady from the office was on the line. The fire lookout towers had reported and plotted a smoke in the wandoo country a few kilometres east of us. Immediate dispatch was the order of the day. Having consulted the map and decided on the best route to the fire, we all piled into our vehicles, me leading and the two gang trucks with their crews aboard, following. Given that it was now probably a searing 44 degrees, you might think we were pretty anxious … but there were other factors at play (which I will explain in a minute), that helped to calm our nerves.

Forestry gang in a 1960s Bedford gang truck

We soon reached the fire, and the scene was an unforgettable one. There was a battered old Holden ute. There was a grimy old firewood cutter sitting on a log. There was a burnt area of about a quarter of an acre, still smoking, but no running fire. In the centre of the burn was a blob of molten aluminium with a steel cutter bar poking out of it.

You guessed it. The old firewood cutter had attempted to start his chainsaw after re-fuelling, and there had been some spillage, or perhaps, given the extreme temperature, the saw was surrounded by two-stroke vapour. Whatever, when he pulled the starter rope, the saw burst into flames. It then set fire to the bush. The old fella performed heroically. Using only a shovel from his ute, he put a crude fire break around the fire and contained it. He was now completely “stuffed” and could hardly stand up, but he was a wiry old bushman, and soon recovered sufficiently to croak out the details of his adventure.

The forestry crews had the whole thing tidied up and put to bed in a few minutes and, having ascertained that the old bloke was OK and capable of driving home, and after double checking to see that the fire was safe to leave, we returned to Beraking and our safety meeting. I can still hear Jack chuckling away beside me all the way back. He had been with the crews trapped in the Wells Fire the night Dwellingup burned, and they had just only just escaped the inferno. As far as bushfires were concerned, you could almost hear him thinking: “this is a bit more like it”.

There were two things I loved about that fire. The first was that the area in which it occurred had been subjected to a prescribed burn two years previously. The firewood cutter’s fire did no more than trickle through the 2-year-old leaf litter, the flames never more than about ankle height. The second was that, although it was a fiercely hot day, there was little wind. The footprint of the fire was almost perfectly circular.

Fire (a prescribed burn) in wandoo forest, on an almost windless day

I often think about this fire when confronted by the myths about bushfires coming at us from some of our universities. The one that always gives me the best laugh is the idea that “fuel reduction burning has no benefit in bushfire control” as two learned Murdoch University professors confidently assert. They might have revised their opinion If they had been there in the wandoo bush that day and seen how easy it was for one man, with only a shovel, to control a fire in 2-year-old fuel on a 44 -degree day.

I also remember this fire when the cry goes up that “because of global warming, bushfires are going to become impossible to control”. But firefighters do not fear a hot day, per se; it is the combination of high winds and heavy fuels that result in uncontrollable fires, and this combination can be circumvented by good management. If fuel levels are kept low by prescribed burning, a fire on even the hottest day is relatively easy to control.

There is another factor: my observations of wandoo forests since the early 1960s demonstrate that they love periodic mild-intensity fire. The bush comes back, green and vigorous, full of birds and animals. There is a sense of renewal. The substitution of mild controlled fires for savage summer wildfires means that the forest and all who live within it, are not only happier, but healthier, more resilient and more beautiful. It is a travesty that there are influential people in the community who reject this view and prefer the devastation of wildfire.

Just after a prescribed burn in the wandoo forest

The same spot 2 years later, the forest refreshed and renewed:

But enough politics and philosophy. There are more pleasant things to think about, for example those “good fires” which we enjoyed from time to time over the years.

I can remember many of these, but I still think of that fire started by the old firewood cutter fifty-five years or so ago as the best fire I ever attended. Not only was it easily controlled and did no damage, but it was also a classic demonstration of the benefits of responsible forest management - specifically, the value of fuel reduction burning, ensuring that potential fire-grounds are prepared in the expectation of a fire on a bad day. Once again, we saw verified before our very eyes the wisdom of the old adage: “Good Fires prevent Bad Fires”.

But best of all is remembering the pleasure of sharing the day with Jack Marshall and the forestry boys, all of whom regarded the whole thing as a bit of a lark. Just a little fire. Nothing to write home about.

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The claims of "researchers" that if we don't burn the bush, over time it will be come less flammable defy the laws of ecology and physics. One of my favourite bushfires started around 1pm on 30 September 1980, a day of total fire ban. By the time crews arrived, the fire was out of control, running under a NW wind, through inaccessible bush, with fuel loads of 20 to 30 t/ha.

Tracking of the southern and northern edges of the fire continued through the night and the next day, to try to pinch off the head of the fire. Progress was slow and late morning the NW wind picked up again, pushing the head fire towards the first fire trail…

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