VICSES marks 40th anniversary of Ash Wednesday bushfires

VICSES marks 40th anniversary of Ash Wednesday bushfires

16/02/2023, 9:23 AM

Acting Chief Officer, Operations, Alistair Drayton at Ash Wednesday 40th anniversary commemorative event, Sunday, 12th February 2022 (photo credit: Keith Pakenham AFSM/CFA)

Content Warning: This story may contain elements that can be triggering for survivors or surviving family members of the Ash Wednesday tragedy.

Today we mark the 40th anniversary of one of the most deadly fire emergencies in our state’s history, during which many of our Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES) units were deployed to assist.

Then, as now, VICSES crews worked tirelessly to supply resources and logistics, clear roads, and evacuate residents.

Although a harrowing memory, which is marked in Victoria’s history, it demonstrates how communities can come together in times of need, and how we work as one across the emergency management sector to keep communities safe.

We spoke to three currently serving and lifetime members who played a part during the response effort.

VICSES Frankston Unit, Controller, Brian McMannis:

“I was the Transport Officer - or Fleet Manager today - at VICSES Frankston Unit in 1983.”

On Ash Wednesday - 16 February 1983 - Brian was returning from a swim, to his vehicle, to find that his unit had been calling on the two-way radio. With no time to go home, Brian went to the unit to grab his overalls, helmet and boots, and to lead a crew to Upper Beaconsfield.

As they left Frankston, the air was already pungent with smoke, the vision hazy, and the sky a reddish-grey.

“You could tell by looking at the sky there was a very large fire somewhere nearby,” said Brian.  “The sky stayed like that until we were about ten minutes out from Upper Beaconsfield, when we began to notice how hot it had become.”

The VICSES crew were met the police upon arriving at Akoonah Park, where Victoria Police had set up a staging area for emergency responders. With the haze growing in intensity, the volunteers were tasked by police to evacuate local residents, including twenty from a nursing home.

“We worked very fast to evacuate the nursing home,” recalls Brian. “The residents were a bit scared, uneasy about being moved, especially in the back of a VICSES vehicle. “Some had dementia, so it was a lot to take.”

Travelling in a convoy of two trucks, the VICSES crews door-knocked throughout Cockatoo to find that most residents had already left. Most who answered had made plans to leave.

However a few had remained, unaware of the danger. The crews told residents that they had been asked by police to speak to them, to warn them of a destructive bushfire in the area, and to plead with them to evacuate as soon as possible. All accepted the VICSES crews’ advice, gathered their prized possessions and left.

“As we steered our small convoy in the dark, over dirt roads - around the lots and enclosures - we could see the light from the fire in the distance, so I stopped the vehicle,” recalls Brian.

“There were no lights on the road and we were not even from the area,” he continued. “It was getting too close.”

“We passed a Country Fire Authority (CFA) crew travelling by truck in the opposite direction. As we later learned, they were meeting another crew at the bottom of the road. Both trucks were discovered later, burned out.”

“None of the firefighters survived,” said Brian. “It could have so easily been us.”

The crew remained in Upper Beaconsfield overnight. The next day, Brian awoke to find charred ruins that smouldered in a smoggy veil, which shrouded the morning sun.

Many of the homes the crew had visited had been destroyed. “One of our roles at the time was to go back through and search for deceased,” said Brian, “so the firefighters could focus on controlling the fire.”

"We have special units to do that now, but at the time we were tasked with everything,” he continued.

The VICSES volunteers had sleeping bags at a building in Akin Park, where they returned each night to sleep on the floor. “We had to do what we had to do,” said Brian, who joined VICSES in 1978. "You join the SES to help. I was tasked to be one of the crew leaders, so you rise to occasion.”

VICSES Craigieburn Unit Officer, Kevin OCallaghan:

“We were getting burning leaves from Macedon, which is a 40-minute drive away, landing on our front lawn,” said Kevin, who has been a member of VICSES Craigieburn Unit since it was founded. “This was because of the high winds and dry conditions, with ash travelling through the air. The whole of the Macedon Ranges was on fire,” says Kevin. “The hills glowed."

“It was one of the few times in my life I was scared,” recalls Kevin. “Everything around you was on fire. All the grass was gone, with only a thick layer of black ash left, topped by glowing trees.”

“Our unit was involved over about a week. For the first day or two, our members used chainsaws to clear roads, and allow fire trucks to freely move throughout the area. From the third day, we were involved in the fire relief at Gisborne, providing clothes, food, and other needed supplies.”

For five nights, the VICSES Craigieburn Unit volunteers set up a staging station at Riddells Creek depot, where trains arrived with water for the tankers. The volunteer crew went into the town centres, and worked the distribution points set up to issue clothes and food.

“The ground was like powder,” said Kevin.

Back in Craigieburn, ten days or so after Ash Wednesday, the volunteers finished the operation at Mt Macedon, but their work was not yet finished. The volunteers set up donation points at the Sunbury Shire complex on behalf of the local council.

"A lot of the people running things back then were ex-military, and were very experienced,” continued Kevin. “The police up in that area were accustomed to fire response. However, nowadays the training level is much higher. We do fire preparation courses, and learn how to manage dangerous trees, so we are better trained on the fundamentals than we were in 1983.”

VICSES Craigieburn Unit volunteers, 1984 (Left to right at back: Ron Jacobson, Allan O‘Donohue, John Toomey, Paul Ledwich, Peter Gray, Neil Ferguson, Cr. Haydn Gregson, Cr. Michael Donovan. Cr Des Dumbrell, Kevin O‘Callaghan. Left to right at front: Peter Neild, Alan Ker, Alan Matthews)

VICSES Port Fairy Unit, Controller, Steve McDowell:

Steve McDowell is now the Unit Controller of the VICSES Port Fairy Unit, but back in 1983 was a teenaged firefighter with the CFA.

“It was my first operational event,” says Steve. “I was 16 years old and still in secondary school when I found myself on the back of a CFA truck - the day following Ash Wednesday - when we dispatched from our small, rural brigade of Spring Creek.”

Steve was working in the Panmure area, actively firefighting and blacking out the area, putting out anything that was still smouldering. “We were fighting three fires that day two of which joined to become one large fire and almost burned its way to the coast.” Steve stuck with it for four or five days, hopping in and out of different trucks as he was needed.

“It was forty years ago but pretty daunting for a 16 year old to be thrown into that,” says Steve. “I just don’t think I realised the scale of what was happening, but later - when I realised what a large event it was - it set me up to have a better understand of what training was about, and why it was necessary to get in as much training as you can, and get yourself ready.”

Steve has been a CFA firefighter for 40 years, and a VICSES volunteer for 29 years, and went on to participate in other large-scale emergency events such as Black Saturday.

“With my current experience as a member of both agencies, I know that VICSES plays a vital in freeing up qualified firefighters to go to do the job they’re trained to do,” says Steve.

“When you are dealing with a fast-moving situation, firefighters don’t have the opportunity to keep the roads open, transport supplies, door-knock and evacuate people whose lives are threatened,” says Steve. “This allows the CFA volunteers to focus on firefighting, as well as protecting vital assets and infrastructure.”

VICSES Craigieburn Unit Officer, Kevin O’Callaghan

VICSES Frankston Unit, Controller, Brian McMannis