Civil defence for bushfire.

The Doncaster and Templestowe Civil Defence for Bushfire.

On January 17, 1962, the suburb of Doncaster in outer eastern Melbourne felt like Pompeii as ash rained down on it from Warrandyte, where 50 homes were destroyed in an hour. Five hundred homes were lost in the hills, and eight people died. That was the summer conflagration that lit the Dandenongs like a beacon from Monday, 15 January, until rain fell at 1 a.m. the following Sunday. That summer, I devised the kernel of my ideas on personal safety, as, on my own with an 18 month toddler watching, I  protected a neighbour’s property waving a garden hose and with a wet nappy over my nose to breathe. That summer, raised my consciousness on the enigma of the evacuation dilemma, as I discussed with the founder of our bushfire Civil Defence the debacle – repeated every year since – of the exodus of would-be evacuees from Warrandyte.

As I wrote in The Complete Australian Bushfire Book (now titled The Complete Bushfire Safety Book:
‘Cars streamed along the narrow, twisting, tree-flanked, smoke-filled Warrandyte-Ringwood road – old bombs and Bentleys – all piled high with possessions, each one crammed with pets and so many people you wouldn’t know where they’d come from.  It needed only one car to stall and the lot would have been stuck.  And to cap it all, above the honking and yelling and crying kids, was a parrot strapped in his cage on top of a car and screeching: “How do you like it now?  How do you like that?  How do you like it now, mate?  How do you like it now?” ’

At that time there was then no direction from the State in Victoria on matters of civil defence.  It was left to individual municipalities to work out any real course of action for themselves.

Out of the ashes of the 132 homes destroyed in Warrandyte and Wonga Park in outer eastern Melbourne in 1962 rose the Shire of Doncaster & Templestowe (now the City of Manningham) Civil Defence for Bushfire, first such municipal organisation in Australia and, it was believed, the world.

This led to a do-it-yourself, tight-knit Council-C.F.A. liaison throughout seven Shires and one City: Yarra Valley Regional Civil Defence Organisation, a do-it-yourself, tight-knit Council-C.F.A. liaison throughout seven Shires and one City Croydon, Doncaster and Templestowe, Eltham, Healesville, Knox, Lilydale, Sherbrooke and Upper Yarra-an example to other fire-prone districts and other States.

It was a precursor of the Country Fire Authority/State Emergency Service/Police co-operation we have today.

Doncaster & Templestowe Civil Defence, embryo of the Regional body, was conceived at a public meeting in Doncaster’s Athenaeum Hall in April, 1963, called by the (then) Shire Council in response to a letter form the Government inviting all municipalities to form civil defence organisations.

In November, 1964, on the suggestion of Councillor Russell J. Hardidge, the Shire President and a radio enthusiast, the eight neighbouring municipalities got together to develop methods to provide each other with auxiliary help in the event of major fires. Cr Hardidge was vigorously supported by his council, who realised he was ’onto something’ worthwhile.

The joint ideas were put to the test after only four months. When the March 1965 fires swept down from Research to Warrandyte, only two houses were lost.

The key was: Civil Defence supported the brigades. Auxiliary support included provision of additional water tankers to replenish fire fighting units, organisation of Traffic Check Points to direct and control operational traffic, additional fire fighters, supplementary radio communications, medical and refreshment services.

Specific requirements of each district differed according to topography and population placement. Some had more resources than others, but the way in which each in the Yarra Valley Region went into action was basically the same. They worked in concert – from their  municipal offices outwards.

The Shire Secretary, as Civil Defence Officer, Administration, was responsible for welfare, medical and evacuation services, and utilisation of local service organisations and businesses. Whatever support the C.F.A. Officer wanted, the Town Clerk arranged and supplied it-when, where and how he wanted it.  Could a leading city retail store to send its entire stock of knapsacks?  The store’s delivery van then stayed on to help with transport.

The Shire Engineer, as C.D.O., Operations, allotted duties to council outdoor staff and kept information flowing to the Civil Defence Controller, the scheme’s instigator, local ex-army strategist and historian Colonel E. G. Keogh.

The adaptability of the normal municipal radio network to emergency use vouched for the versatility in planning, the keystone of this organisation of civil defence at the local level. During a major fire, Doncaster-Templestowe municipal vehicles equipped with radio on the City’s own wavelength for their everyday duties automatically became Civil Defence units. Each  connected with the municipal offices and C.F.A. Group Headquarters.

In 1967 the first of the civil defence land lines were laid. The organisation then had three alternative communications systems: normal telephone, direct land line and radio with direct links to local emergency assembly centres, its near neighbour municipalities, the Regional Civil Defence Controller at Croydon, the Warrandyte Group of Rural Fire Brigades and C.F.A. Region Headquarters at Lilydale. Independent communications were thus woven throughout the whole of the Yarra Valley Civil Defence Organisation and C.F.A. Region 13. Motor cycle dispatch riders were planned as a back-up.

There were two wings of the civil defence scheme. Administrative and Operations.  Vehicles owned by the City were detailed for service. Each staff member involved knows her or his special role.

Operations C.O. was the Shire Engineer. He managed operations allotted duties to council outdoor staff and presented information to the Civil Defence Controller. Administration C.O. was the Town Clerk. He was responsible for the organisation and operation of Welfare, Medical and Evacuation services, utilisation of local service organisations and businesses. The Municipal Health Officer Dr. N. R. Dowell organised First Aid Posts, Forward Medical Aid Units; procured  medical stores and liaised with ambulance services.

This shire which at that time boasted Australia’s biggest baby boom could convert its seven triple certificated Infant Welfare Sisters into as many mobile first aid units at fire areas. The city’s Infant Welfare Sisters could set up six first aid posts within twenty minutes. During the proclaimed summer fire period, each Sister carried in her car at all times a comprehensive medical kit especially prepared to deal with fire injuries, Stretchers and blankets are kept in the basement of the Town Hall.

At Warrandyte Hall, Warrandyte Red Cross, supplemented by Rover Scouts, helped the trained team.  Templestowe Red Cross was ready to care for evacuated school children at Templestowe kindergarten. Other local Red Cross Groups attended to welfare and arrange refreshments and care of evacuees. Municipal outdoor staff assisted police with control of evacuation and sightseeing traffic- then rife.

When notification of a major fire set the Civil Defence Organisation in motion, these were collected and delivered by a municipal C.D. staff member to the Forward Medical Aid Unit set up by Dr. Dowel) and one or more of the Sisters at the Warrandyte Mechanic’s Institute Hall. Other medical posts were set up when and where required.  In March, 1965, the Sister from Templestowe Infant Welfare Centre operated one from her car beside the river bank at Templestowe where scrub fires were raging. Unlike their colleagues in hospitals, they had no sick patients to leave and yet the injured are assured of trained attention.  There was also a list of trained ex-nurses living in the city who are willing to be called upon for relief purposes.

In 1976 a rescue section capable of bringing casualties from difficult areas was added to the corps. A municipal utility truck with driver and two attendants highly skilled in first aid, had rope, tackle and other gear capable of rescuing fire fighters from gullies, trapped beneath fallen trees and other serious situations.

When a fire reached major  proportions, the Engineer’s Department’s outdoor staff formed into three fire fighting groups. The City’s seven water carts were deployed to maintain water supplies to their own and other units.  Concrete mixers and water carts were used as emergency tankers.

Before this, when C.F.A. tankers became empty, fire control was hampered when they had to leave it for a half hour or more to refill.  Now the water carts, each holding 1,000 gallons, refilled them on the spot. During the 1965 fires not a single operational unit was left without water.

In that era it was customary for bushfire fighter volunteers to be called from the population. Men young and old would arrive at assembly points with or without their own knapsacks, beaters and maybe felt hat and strong boots. Or not. Extremely heroic and horribly hazardous.

But with the Doncaster and Templestowe Civil Defence for Bushfire, volunteers arriving at the municipal offices were organised by civil defence staff. Checked for suitable clothing: long trousers, strong shoes, head covering; that garments were of non-flammable material. Nobody was allowed into the fire area in shorts, nylon shirts or thongs. This had not happened before in Victoria (or elsewhere, probably).

Municipal and buses transported them to fire areas where they were deployed as needed by C.F.A. leaders.

The adaptability of the normal municipal radio network to emergency use vouched for the versatility in planning, the keystone of this organisation of civil defence at the local level. During a major fire, Doncaster-Templestowe municipal vehicles equipped with radio on the shire’s own wavelength for their everyday duties automatically became Civil Defence units. Each  connected with the municipal offices and C.F.A. Group Headquarters.

In 1967 the first of the civil defence land lines were laid. The organisation then had three alternative communications systems: normal telephone, direct land line and radio with direct links to local emergency assembly centres, its near neighbour municipalities, the Regional Civil Defence Controller at Croydon, the Warrandyte Group of Rural Fire Brigades and C.F.A. Region Headquarters at Lilydale. Independent communications were thus woven throughout the whole of the Yarra Valley Civil Defence Organisation and C.F.A. Region 13. Motor cycle dispatch riders were planned as a back-up.

Fires which burnt Boronia and Upwey in February the following year would undoubtedly have burnt for a much longer period and have been more disastrous without the support provided by C.D.O. personnel,’ said then C.F.A. Regional Controller Arthur McPhain.

‘We could completely rely on them. Back-up equipment was pre-arranged and guaranteed. We could depend on getting what we needed when we needed it. It was a support much needed over the years.’

Forty-six thousand gallons of water were carted by 24 municipal tankers obtained from Melbourne, Camberwell, Oakleigh, Waverley, Nunawading and Springvale City Councils, and 2I concrete mixers, and a continual supply maintained to water trains.

Bulldozers by the tens and knapsacks by the hundreds were called in from other municipalities and even the Country Roads Board (CRB); 50 torches; six buses; two and a half thousand meal packs; 600 bottles of soft drink and innumerable salt tablets were also pulled out of the municipal hat.  Stacks of towels cut in three at Croydon, were despatched for mopping brows at Montrose.

In one incident at Upwey, water supplied to CFA units by tankers and trucks manned by Doncaster and Templestowe council staff was directly responsible for saying 16 houses from, destruction.

I heard it said by more than one closely involved observer, that the Yarra Valley Municipal Civil Defence Organisation that year saved the Dandenongs.

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One Response to Civil defence for bushfire.

  1. Pingback: My bushfire safety phase. | Joan Webster OAM

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