VicPol Corporate

Buchan's story, Victorian bushfires remembered

Friday, 8 January 2021 10:02

The black smoke was suffocating, and every ridge was on fire, as the people of Buchan watched helplessly as a large fire marched towards their town, growing with greater fury as each minute passed. The devastation of the bushfires in East Gippsland and the northeast of Victoria made the summer of 2019/2020 a historic emergency response challenge for Victoria Police. This story documents Buchan’s experience of the bushfires and the ongoing relief and recovery that followed. 

Transcript

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

It was a 40 plus degree day at 8 o’clock at night when this fire went through. It was like a wave of fire just coming across 360 degrees, it was burning on all the ridges around us, you know, we were totally surrounded. I’d never seen anything like it, the wind, and the smoke, and the flames, you could hardly see two foot in front of you, couldn’t breathe, you could hardly breathe, and that’s the most scared I’ve ever been. The area of Buchan was initially impacted November 21, which was a good month and a half before the main event that impacted Buchan of course. A couple of weeks before New Year’s Eve Victoria Police started to employ extra members to come and give me some assistance. It was the 28th of December that I first met Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace, who was my partner for the next good week and a half or so.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

This is the map the day before the fires of the impacted zone for the projected fire and Buchan’s just in the middle.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

It was a super hot day, 40 degrees at 10 o’clock, we could see there was a fire to our left, fire to the north-west, fire to our north east, and another one to the east so we basically had fire all around us, and it was just a matter of working out which one was going to hit us first.

Gregory Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

Well, we knew it was coming, everyone knew it was coming. I don’t think everyone expected it to be what it was, it was a bit bigger than what we knew was coming. By 7 o’clock that night there was a massive plume in the sky there where is started to rain down around us and I don’t think there was a place you could look that wasn’t on fire.

Marg Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

Yeah, and I think it was finally living through what you’d always imagined and suddenly, oh my God this is real!

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

We could see that there was fire flaming up on the hills where Ian and Gwen Strobridge live.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

And the fire was impacting along the ridgeline there, and Ian and Gwen’s house can be seen from here, the shed’s still standing, the green shed. I just said to Andy ‘The Strobridges’s are up there, do you want to go for a drive?’. It’s about a 2-minute drive from where we were parked. Come around the corner and I saw Storey's holden parked in the front and I said to Andy “They’re still in there, they’re both over 80 and they’re inside that house”. And as we drove and parked in the driveway their house was starting to be engulfed by fire, it was licking under the carport.

Ian Strobridge, Buchan local:

It was coming down there, coming, across, it was coming to both ways actually.

Gwen Strobridge, Buchan local:

Very frightening, very angry fire, nothing would have stopped it. It was just... I’ve never felt anything like it. I don’t want to ever want to feel like that again.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

Andy made it in, inside the house. I finally got to the house edge. I couldn’t see anyone but I could at least give them instructions and let them know what was going on, and then Ian Strobridge finally ran towards me and I secured Ian, but Andy was still in that house in the darkness because the power had gone out and he’s in total darkness.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

But we got them out, chucked them in their car, and we knew that the road was safe for them to drive back to Buchan. Fifty metres down the road on the other side, there was another property with an elderly couple that we went and checked on, and then as we came out we went and stopped at Ian and Gwen’s and their house was fully engulfed.

Gwen Strobridge, Buchan local:

So that’s how close we were, very close, we just thank those two that we’re alive and we can celebrate our sixtieth wedding anniversary in two years I hope. There’s no way know we would have been out in time, cause it was only a matter of a few minutes, two minutes.

Ian Strobridge, Buchan local:

If only for the police we just wouldn’t be here, that’s the way I look at it.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

And then we got a call to go to a local farmer’s place, didn’t we?

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

So we decided to go out of town again. We drove down into the valley and then there are trees on either side, and it’s only a single width dirt road. So all those trees are on fire.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

It was just like Hell, it’ was burning trees and I’m thinking ‘If a tree falls behind us or in front of us we’re trapped’. We could hardly see but we finally got to Craig’s place. It was just red, and black, and smokey. You couldn’t see hardly two foot in front of you. Andy ran off toward Craig to make sure he was ok. I was with the wife, and I was genuinely scared. That was the most scared I’ve been I think. Where the smoke would just engulf... it’s just one of those things you’d never wish upon your worst enemy, to be stuck like that and it makes me feel about how my friend Mick Roberts passed. He was stuck in the middle of a similar fire, it was the same road so whatever happened at Craig’s happened at Mick’s earlier. And it’s just horrible to think that someone has to go through that. I mean, one didn’t survive, but two did survive that day, which was unreal.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

Seeya guys. Buchan 201... So I’ve been the station commander of Buchan since 2002, that’s 18 years. At one-manner, you know all the people. On the night of the fire, knowing where my locals live, knowing the demographic of the household, whether it be elderly, children, disabled. Knowing who was in each house played an integral part to how Andy and I policed on the night. It allowed me to make split decisions, and decisions that would save time, and when you save time, and you save lives, and that’s what happened on the night.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

He knows what cars they drive, he knows their habits, he knows where they go on the weekends. His knowledge bank is priceless in a situation where you need to be able to account for people.

Gregory Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

Ray has a lot of empathy, he knows everyone when you’ve got the local policeman, they’ve got to become a natural leader in town. We had some people go to the water after it and Ray was magnificent. You know, it’s not about the other police work they do then, you know what I mean, its a different type of police work. Poor old Andy was, after that night, was stuck here. Like he wasn’t getting out for a week. We had no power, we no phones, we had no water, we had nothing really for quite a few days.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

I don’t think people understand the amount of work it takes to get a town back up and running. The local community and the way they pulled together, Marg and her husband Bricky, they fed CFA, DELWP, police, paramedics, anybody that needed a feed got a feed.

Marg Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

And it was hilarious, we had no power, no lights, no ovens.

Gregory Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

The girls were cooking under headlamps that night.

Marg Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

Yeah, It was a bit crazy.

Gregory Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

While that was going on, the back yard behind the pub here was on fire, everything was on fire so it was...It was hectic. Yeah, it was bedlam.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

This is the first time I’ve done a country deployment to help out in their projected fire season. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I formed some really close bonds with the community. Hi Gwen, how are you?

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

So I first met Andy at a roadblock, and we’d never met before. We just gelled, and we sort of knew what we were doing even before we did it. We’d both done over 30 years each, but it was just that, I guess that old school policing come to afore, and he made a really good rapport with people straight away, and he was a wonderful asset to have for me. But he could also detach because he didn’t know them personally like I do, and he could see at one stage I was starting to tear up and I was shaking at times, and he says ‘I’ve got this’, and I just went away and Andy would take over. If I had anyone else I don’t think it would have been so smooth.

Gregory Brick, Buchan local and pub owner:

The community as a whole has been very supportive to each other, it been excellent you know. And it’s the likes of Ray and Andy responsible for a lot of that because it was what got set up right at the start that has continued on. There have been other people involved in that, don’t worry it wasn’t just Ray and Andy. People that got down to the rec ground there. What had to be set up there in a big hurry was just amazing. The rapid relief team which came in from Bairnsdale, and you don’t realise what it like to get a good cup of coffee.

Ian Strobridge, Buchan local:

Since the fires, you couldn’t get enough people around. They were handing out clothes, this shirt doesn’t belong to me, well it doesn’t now.

Gwen Strobridge, Buchan local:

Oh look, the clothes. I got some beautiful clothes and blankets, you name it.

Leading Senior Constable Andy Trace:

On the days of the fires everything was left black, and the green that you’re seeing, that was black and brown. There was no green around anywhere so...

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

We call it fire-affected green because everything just grows, as you can see around here you’d think, ‘Where’re the fires?’. We’re starting to get back on our feet, you know. Its affected a lot of people, I know it’s affected me and my wife, and I know a lot of people in town have been affected. So there’s different scars, different mental scars. It’ll take a long time to heal, a long, long time to heal for a lot of people.

Gwen Strobridge, Buchan local:

Any time I wake up in the night I just shudder. I think ‘Gee you know, we could have just been a speck of dust’.

Ian Strobridge, Buchan local:

It’s taken me quite a few months. I wake up in through the night and be thinking about this and thinking about that. It’s only the last few months I’m having a proper night’s sleep. It’s taken a long time.

Leading Senior Constable Ray Moreland:

We lost 24 houses in Buchan on that day, in and around Buchan. I think Buchan is very resilient, we’ve been through bushfires before. Everyone’s got their chin up and their houses will be rebuilt, and we will move on, and we’ll all get better. Still, come and visit us, you know I mean we’ve been impacted by the fires but please come back to the country, come and support us, and you’ll come and see how beautiful it is.

Reviewed 13 January 2021

Was this page helpful?