VicPol Corporate

Our East Gippsland response, Victorian bushfires remembered

Sunday, 10 January 2021 22:17

Transcript

Senior Sergeant Alan Rice:

Most bush fires will burn for 2 or 3 days, maybe a week max, this thing burnt for nearly 4 months. At times we thought we had it under control in certain areas, and then due to a weather pattern or it creating its own, or linking up with another fire, It would just take off again. I was a Senior Sergeant in charge of Bairnsdale at the time. Part of that role was also the Municipal Emergency Response Coordinator for East Gippsland Shire. We had significant fires commence in late November 2019. As a result of those fires, I deployed as part of my role as MERC to the Incident Control Centre which had been established by DELWP at Bairnsdale. Over a number of days shortly after that, we experienced significant weather events into December. This fire started to grow throughout the East Gippsland footprint and it was affecting a lot of communities and also East Gippsland Shire in general.

Superintendent Simon Humphrey:

A bushfire’s a part of the landscape up here every single year, so it was not a new event to us but certainly, the size, scale, and duration was just off the charts, and not something that we were adequately prepared for, or adequately resourced for, and for most of that period I was the primary police commander sharing the role with the East Gippsland local area commander and some other members at various times.

Senior Sergeant Alan Rice:

One of the things with this fire, it was just so dynamic. It was creating its own weather patterns, thunderstorms kilometres ahead of itself, and then from those thunder and lightning storms, that was igniting new areas that hadn’t been planned for, and then heavily impact areas that had already been burnt, and would just continue to burn because everything was so dry. It was amazing, the ground was even burning. We had communities that one day they were safe, and then within a few hours they became isolated and they would fall under an emergency alert or an emergency warning for an evacuation or shelter in place. And then within a few hours again they were fine, and the next community alongside that would then be impacted heavily.

Superintendent Simon Humphrey:

There was no respite for us, we live in this community so when we weren’t at work we were trying to exist in the area that was under attack so there were members who were working who we had to send home to go and defend their houses, to evacuate relatives, remove stock and pets from their places. It was really quite confronting, and we had members who had turned up for work, they’d worked a shift, they couldn’t get home, so they were sleeping on the floors of offices just to try and get some sleep before they would come back on duty and then when they were able to, they would have to rush home and defend their home or help their family members, it was some extraordinary stuff going on. Fortunately, we were able to get really good support from across the state and from other regions, and the areas in metropolitan Melbourne, so I think we had close to 1200 members up here from start to finish. Many of them from outside this area, and many of them with absolutely no experience in this type of event.

Superintendent Simon Humphrey:

As the police commander and others in primary roles, we were making life and death decisions several times a shift, and the deployment into Cann River was really challenging for us. We take our advice from the Incident Controller and we were facilitating a shift change over and all of the advice was that Cann River was safe. By the time they got there it was anything but safe, and I felt, you know I still do, I still feel very deeply about putting those members at harm, it was my decision to put them in there, and they were really in a very, very dangerous, precarious situation.

Senior Sergeant Alan Rice:

This is Clifton's Creek, so we’re about 15 minutes north of Bairnsdale, very, very intense fires through here.

Superintendent Simon Humphrey:

You can from the regrowth that it's recovering quite well, but it was a very, very intense fire that went through here. Senior Sergeant Alan Rice: The soil was on fire, and to see it come back is spectacular.

Senior Sergeant Alan Rice:

At the Incident Control Centre, I was supported very well by the Traffic Manager who was also there, and they were managing the traffic management points. We had over 8000km of roads that were affected and had to be managed and make safe for people to get back into eventually with relief. At one point throughout the event we had up to 15 Emergency Relief Centres established to support communities. At times there were up to 25 different agencies that were based at the Incident Control Centre. We had international support from the Americans and Canadians who came across.

We had strike teams on the ground and we also had multiple air assets up, both helicopters and fixed- wings that were deploying and trying to put this fire out. And also for supporting communities that became isolated. ADF eventually came on board and they were able to do a lot of work that no other agency in Victoria was able to do effectively, and it was sensational, they cleared the road, they evacuated people from communities, they resupplied communities. Now at one point there, I remember being a Chinook carrying hay bails, without the ADF we would have been lost.

The community of Victoria are amazing. When we experience a statewide event they dig deep, we had millions of dollars donated, and also goods. A lot of communities, they’re really, really resilient. I attended I don’t know how many community meeting at night that I would go to with the Incident Controller and we were providing information, and we drew on a lot of strength from the community so that was a lot of work that had been done prior to fire season. Getting out, knowing our communities, working with them, preparing them that we were going to experience a fire. Yeah, I think the messaging that went out was really effective. We put some 3000 messages out through that 4 month period through the Emergency Vic app. People took heed to it and it definitely saved lives.

Superintendent Simon Humphrey:

This was just a beast this fire, it was a huge event. We had, I don’t know how many fires, hundreds burning across a huge geographical area, I think 1.3 million hectares was burnt out so virtually every town at some point was under threat. The efforts of all of the agencies here was just quite incredible, it really was. I was incredibly proud of the efforts of the police who were up here. Their ability to just keep pushing on and on and on, day after day after day was really heroic, and I think we provided really good support to the communities. We weren’t the control agency for this event but people naturally looked to the police for comfort and guidance and for reassurance, and that was a big part of our job. It was an incredibly tough event. The most professionally rewarding experience of my career, no question about that. A big learning experience, and after 34 years in this job you think you know the most thing or you’ve confronted most experiences and this was just next level.

Reviewed 13 January 2021

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