Interview with Stewart Anderson early member of the Southend Rural Fire Brigade

Monday, 11 Dec 2017

At the 2017 Gladstone Area Brigade Executive Workshop, I was asked by the RFBAQ representative if I’d write something for “Smoke Signals”. As I’d only been actively involved in the Southend Rural Fire Brigade for eight years, mostly as its secretary, and exempt because of fragile bones from operational activities, I didn’t think I had a lot to write about, so I commandeered Stewart Anderson, an early member of the Brigade from 1952 and Warden from 1975 till 2006 when a knee replacement persuaded him to hand over to his son, Graham. Stewart wrote a history of the Brigade for me, and then I interviewed him. My questions or comments are in brackets.

Southend Brigade Area runs south of Theodore between the Dawson River and the Glenmoral Range and has a lot of National Park (Isla Gorge) and the Leichhardt Highway runs through it, creating some challenges.

I began by asking Stewart about his early memories of fire:-

“The first big fire I remember was in 1950. We fought fires for forty days and forty nights.” (I thought of Jesus struggling with the devil, and wondered how a person could keep up the fight for that length of time.)

“There were fires from down near Moura right through to “Fairholme” near “Glenbar”. (That’d be forty miles or so?) “Yeah, but in those years, relations owned the land from Moura to Theodore before the subdivisions.  (Your relations?) “Yes, it was a family affair with some others thrown in along the way. There were no Brigades in those days.”

(What started that fire?) “Well, the railway started one of them – and lightning strikes – there were a lot of bad lightning strikes that year.”

(That would have been all native grasses that year?) “Yes, but when the fires were on it was very hot and it burned through brigalow scrub here on “Devil’s Nest” and left it just white ash where it had burned the grasses in the scrub. Very, very hot – very intense – a big body of grass must’ve built up through the years among the big brigalows and wilga. Brigalows usually slow the fire down a bit, but not this lot.”

“Normally on the property you only burned after rain for a bit of green grass and for regrowth control. People have gone off fire a lot now to what they used to. It was a known thing once that you’d drop a match if you had a bit of spare grass to get fresh fodder. But nowadays it’s changed. You’ve got your (supplementary) licks so cattle can benefit from the dry grass. After blade ploughs came in and chemicals to treat the regrowth we don’t see as many fires now as we used to.

“We used to use kerosene burners to start the fire – no drip torches in those days. We’d anchor the fires into the scrub. Back-burn from the cattle pad or fire break into the scrub where they’d burn themselves out. There were no big major fires because in those days there were natural fire breaks everywhere and we didn’t have the big fires that we had in later years after the scrubs were pulled.

“Early in the piece there were no dozers and no ploughs. The only equipment was knapsacks and wet bags. (You’ve got to get pretty close to a fire to hit it with a wet bag.) Yes, but the fires back then weren’t nearly as volatile as later on – not nearly as volatile as with the introduced grasses. Buffel grass is probably the hardest one to snuff out once it gets going.

“When the graders and dozers and ploughs came in, that made a big difference. You’d use offsets to plough along the fences and anywhere you’d want a break and that’d take out about 90% of the grass and the rest we’d burn off. You’d never rely on ploughed breaks to hold a wildfire.

“Nowadays you have your sprays and fire tanks and slip-on fire fighting gear – it’s a bit different. With the scrub gone, there are farm tracks everywhere – makes it a lot easier. You’ve still got to use the grader to make it a bit safer.

(What did you learn about fire back then?) “You always respect a fire. You’ve got a lot of respect for fire. You’ve got to be careful with them. Work out where you can anchor it and what you can do with it. You don’t go at it like a mad thing – you soon learn to back off a bit.

“We never had a fire get out of control on our place.  

“We had trouble with one on a National Park once – probably in the ‘70s. It had started with something coming loose on a truck – a chain or something – and we did have a bit of trouble with it down towards “Dukes Plains”.  We were lucky - we got a wind change just before a storm and enough rain to steady it, then we went back to another break to finish it.

“We usually had pretty good success.  We had a good crew. We never had any hassles. I was a 1st Officer for many years, and you always utilised the knowledge of the owner of the place. They always know the layout. So we never had any problems working together.

“The women did a terrible lot of behind the scenes work. No one who’s ever been on a fire’s been hungry.  That’s the way it’s been.

“Now with permitted fires we know where the fire is. It’s the ones that start unexpectedly like with lightning strikes that cause the biggest problem. Once a neighbour had got a permit to light a fire on his place, and when we saw the smoke, we thought he had fired up. We didn’t realise that it was actually on our place. It’s hard to tell how far away the smoke is, or even the glow at night.

“One of the most comical fires we had, some Japanese tourists had a trailer and a wheel came off the trailer and the axle dragged on the road and lit “Karinya” up. We couldn’t speak Japanese, and they couldn’t speak English. But anyway, we sorted it all out in the end. We got the fire out. The owners ploughed across the cultivation paddock and we burned back from there into the fire.

(How have the changed conditions impacted on how you manage fires on your property now?)
“We don’t have a lot of trouble. Odd times we’ve had one or two fires get away. One of the main problems is if trees burn up on the edge of a fire, but mostly we have breaks before we do any burning and we clear the trees away. We have had fires coming out of National Parks, sometimes started on properties in behind the National Park, but we work together on it and Parks staff have done everything possible to help.  Sometimes seasons don’t allow them to have the burn-off they’ve planned, but they’ve put breaks in to try to control their fires. One year -’98 or ‘99 – they had big fires there.

“Sometimes you’ll get rain and a landholder will burn off in forest country then about three or four weeks later things dry out and all of a sudden it breaks out again from a smouldering log or a burning tree root. Years ago, we’d arrange for one of our relatives and an offsider to come behind. They used to mop up with an old ute and a water tank and put out everything within twenty or thirty yards of the edge of the burn. You’ve got to get out early next morning to see trees or roots with a bit of smoke coming from them. We’d check a fire for nearly a week to make sure it was safe.

(Were there any deaths or injuries in your time?) “No deaths.  One member broke a wrist when he fell off a truck up in “Fairholme”, going up into the ranges once. That was the only real injury we’ve ever had.”  
(That is a pretty fair record given how rough some of that country is?) “Oh yes, it’s a pretty fair record, and some of the vehicles they used to have on the farms – Workplace Health & Safety wouldn’t go too well with them! We’ve had a good run as far as injury goes. Equipment? I can’t think of any equipment we lost.

“Ranges are still a problem in some places – if they back right on to the ranges, and a fire comes over from the other side or gets lit in the ranges from a lightning strike, that takes a bit of controlling because you find the grass is always a lot heavier right back near the mountains. The cattle don’t go back that far, and it probably gets a little bit more moisture.

“I think we’ll probably come back to the situation when we’ll get bad fires again. There’s nothing you can do about lightning strikes and there’s not going to be every year that landholders can burn when and where they want to. There’s a limit on what they can do on the bigger places. It makes a big difference when properties can get finance to put in fencing and stock watering points so that cattle will graze paddocks more evenly. That takes the fire hazard down & is one of the reasons we aren’t having as much trouble with fire.

“For many years when there was a fire, within half an hour you’d have fifteen or twenty people arriving, but now they’re all working, so it’s not so easy for them to come to help. (And some of us are getting older.)  
“Back then, there were no brigades and no permits, and today there is a lot of work in issuing permits. It’s not a bad system – it’s a safer system. Sometimes you’ll get a call from the Fire Chief in Rocky at some ungodly hour to say someone has seen a fire along the road, and that’s good.  Get it early is better than spending a week fighting it.

(Telephones & permits make it better?) “Yes. It’s all computerised now and that makes it easier again – (if you can use a computer!)  Before, you’d have to do a lot of guessing or a lot of arranging beforehand, so if a fire did happen to jump the break or something, you had no way of knowing where it was. UHFs and mobile phones – it’s all to the good.

“The gear we can get now through the Rural Fire Brigade has been an enormous help. You can sit on a fire or get onto it straight away before it gets out of control. Back then you’d be running around looking for tanks and drums and the knapsack would be somewhere else.”

I thanked Stewart for sharing his experience of more than half a century of fire management, and thought how readily he had adapted to the changes that Southend has gone through in that time, and how much he valued the support of the Rural Fire Service in keeping in touch with and equipping our Brigade.

Ann Hobson
Southend Rural Fire Brigade

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