Ash Wednesday fires a catalyst for CFA changes
Victoria’s rural firefighting agency has undergone a wholesale modernisation since Ash Wednesday that continues today, as it strives to never again experience a tragedy of the same scale.
Country Fire Authority (CFA) deputy chief officer Garry Cook pinpoints the 1983 blaze as a “watershed” event in the service’s history, with its impacts still motivating leaders to continually improve its systems and resources.
Mr Cook joined the brigade a volunteer firery in 1980 at King Valley in Victoria’s north-east, aged 16, and progressed to the career ranks in the mid-1980s.
His 40 years of experience from the front line all the way to top strategy meetings have seen him witness the transformation of the CFA into today’s service.
“I think of Ash Wednesday as a landmark or watershed moment, because it was a tragedy on a scale that we hadn’t seen in firefighting,” he said.
“The scale, the damage, the impact, and the need to look at so many things that we were doing and set about a journey of moderninsing – that was the beginning of the next generation of the CFA.”
Among the first changes was decommissioning of tankers in action on Ash Wednesday that dated back to the 1960s to a diesel-powered fleet.
Updated trucks include materials that help protect firefighters inside and their resources. Some responders were left stranded on Ash Wednesday after their vehicle’s fuel vaporised under the intense heat.
Clothing has also advanced considerably, with firefighters today fitted out head-to-toe with personalised gear to suit different types of callouts.
On Ash Wednesday, volunteers would, at best, be covered by a communal suit or overalls stashed behind the seats of their tankers.
“A lot of people on the fireground in 1983 were not in any specific personal protective clothing. They might have been in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt,” Mr Cook said.
Today, on-ground fire crews can have support from automatically dispatched aircraft for a multi-pronged attack on fires.
Communications technology has also vastly improved, both for operational responses and broadcasting potentially life-saving information to the public.
The CFA’s outreach also includes community education and emphasising the importance of bushfire plans.
Mr Cook said collaboration and co-operation with fire-prone communities such as those on the Surf Coast was paramount to preventing a repeat of the 1983 disaster.
“Will we get another day like Ash Wednesday, like Black Saturday… inevitably the answer is yes,” he said
“We can have the best of the best of the best, and will continue to strive to be better.
“But we have to have a community that is ready and alert, and prepared to act as well. That’ll give us the best chance of reducing the loss of life and or the loss of property.”