"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

Crowning

O Raymond (bio)

This article was first published in “Firefighters. Stories from Australian foresters”, published by York Gum Publishing in 2014, and edited by Roger Underwood and Oliver Raymond. ISBN 978-0-9942271-0-2. The original title of the article was “Bushfires and Fish – an Unlikely Combination” Author: Oliver Raymond.

It was a glorious early autumn in 1964. The dry weather had produced perfect conditions for a large wildfire to start in the headwaters of Victoria’s Jamieson River. It had been sparked off from a carelessly abandoned campfire during an annual field exercise being carried out by the Citizens’ Military Forces.

As part of the Victorian Forests Commission’s North Eastern Forest Division’s remote fire fighting crew, I had been sent with my crew to the most distant part of the fire to help in its containment. It had been threatening to burn the Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forests in the headwaters of the Jamieson, and we had to build a firebreak to stop it.

Because of the cool, moist nights, the fire had been largely going out of its own accord during the hours of darkness. However, once the heat of each morning’s sun and the inevitable pick up in the wind hit the smouldering edges of the fire it soon took off again.

My crew had been roused from our sleeping bags before dawn and had been given the task of climbing a spur to a cool fire edge. We were to construct a 60 cm wide mineral earth hand trail from the main fire edge down the ridge to the river. From the hand trail we were to light a back burn as we went. This would widen our firebreak and so ensure that the main fire would not jump our line if it got going later in the day.

In those days, the fire crews were composed of the general workers on the forest gangs, with no selection according to fitness levels. Consequently, the sounds of hacking coughs from the smokers amongst us echoed around the camp as we ate our breakfast and readied ourselves for the day’s work.

The trip up the spur was not exactly rapid, either, and there were many breaks as the men leaned on their rakehoes to catch their breaths.

Reaching the dead fire edge, we started work on the hand trail. One man went ahead with an axe to clear any heavy logs from the path of the rakehoe men and the rest of us started raking the dead litter and chipping low shrubs from the forest floor. We left a mineral earth trail behind us, and the last man lit up the unburnt forest fuel starting at the edge of the trail and burning towards the actual wildfire. He skilfully widened the burn as quickly as he safely could to ensure that the firebreak we were creating was as wide as possible should the fire below our spur decide to reignite.

10 o’clock arrived. The sun had climbed quickly and the temperature and wind had picked up. We were just starting work again after a short smoko break when we heard an ominous sound in the gully below us. It sounded like a distant train, and quickly grew louder.

“She’s crowning!” said the most experienced man in our crew. “Quickly, drop down the spur on the other side.”

We needed no encouragement. The fire was now roaring up from the gully towards us, and dense smoke was coming up the spur ahead of the flames. We ran about a hundred metres down the slope until our expert stopped us.

“Wait here.” He said.

We all turned and gazed up the slope towards the terrifying noise coming towards us. A wall of flame appeared at the top of the ridge. It reached up above the tops of the trees, which burst into fire and added to our terror.

And then a most remarkable thing happened. The fire appeared to stop dead in its tracks. It fell down from the tops of the trees and turned from a raging beast into a quiet, controllable burn, moving slowly down the slope towards us. 

“O.K.” said our expert. “We can go back up now.”

So we did.

We found the end of our hand trail, dropped it down the “safe” side of the spur, and continued our progress towards the river, lighting our back burn as we went. Our burn moved rapidly up the ridge as it was now travelling up hill, and quickly established a nice wide firebreak. We had to occasionally cut a bench in the side of the spur to ensure that no burning debris would roll across our hand trail, but due to the rapid widening of the burn behind us, our progress speeded up.

All the rest of the day we worked our way down the spur to the river, with the occasional roaring sound of bullets of fire crowning up from the gully in spurts behind us. Experience had now taught us that we were relatively safe on our downhill slope, and the terror had gone out of the sound. We allotted a couple of men to patrol our line back up the spur to ensure that our firebreak had not been breached, and by evening we reached the river. That particular edge of the fire was now safe, and apart from patrolling and mopping up hot spots until rain came, no more had to be done to contain the main blaze on that edge.

Overnight, it rained. 12mm fell. That was enough to make the fire safe, given the time of the year. However, it also turned the access jeep track to our camp into a slippery mess, and we were unable to drive out. None of our Land Rovers had a winch fitted to them.

So one of our group suggested a spot of fishing to pass the time while the track dried out.

Due to the dry summer, the Jamieson River had turned into a series of waterholes, some of which were only connected by water flowing underground.

We decided to try tickling the river’s trout, as we had no fishing gear. A couple of our group were experts in this method of fishing, and gave us all a demonstration. It looked so easy!

Get into the water. Find a place under which the fish could shelter – a rock, or an overhanging bank. Gently push your hands in until you felt a slimy surface. Work the hands left and right until you thought you had the tail and gills of the fish. Clamp onto the fish and flick it onto the bank.

Easy.

Oh yair? Try it.

Well, we split into pairs to try our luck.

One of the pairs consisted of Erich and Hubert. Erich was a tough veteran of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. He had been captured by the Yanks in the closing stages of the African campaign and had spent an idyllic time as a POW in America during the later stages of the Second World War. His descriptions of the food, the work on the American farms, and the attention the American women had given him verged on fantasy. Hubert was a young Austrian who had emigrated to Australia and was working on our Forestry Crew in order to establish himself. They both spoke German, so they naturally teamed up, despite their obviously different attitudes to life. So off they went.

Shortly after the pair left camp, there was a shout of triumph from Erich. He had his hands under an overhanging bank and was moving them out, left and right. Wider and wider his hands spread, until reality struck. No fish was that long!

The look on his face spoke volumes. He sprang back, vaulted onto Hubert’s back and kept his feet out of the water. From under the bank swam a long, black snake. Both the snake and Erich had no desire to encounter each other, so both went in opposite directions, Erich still on poor Hubert’s back.

Well, the rest of us took warning from that experience, and soon had a respectable number of fish accumulated. By lunchtime the access track had dried out and so we headed for home. We had a large number of fish in the back of one of the Land Rovers, and when we reached Mansfield we did a tour of all the houses occupied by Forestry people, off loading a respectable meal of fish at each stop.

I had learned two skills from that fire.

Downhill fires are a lot safer than uphill ones, and trout tickling is possible with practice!

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