2021 people of the year

By Shelby Brooks and Parker McKenzie

2021 was an eventful year for people living throughout the Dandenong Ranges and the Yarra Valley, but for many emergency service volunteers it is one they won’t forget.

Most State Emergency Services (SES) and Country Fire Brigades (CFA) throughout the area saw an increase in callouts as they adjusted to changing restrictions throughout the year.

While fire related callouts fell in some areas, CFA crews were kept busy as they aided SES with the response to the June storms that felled trees, destroyed property and blocked roads.

The work of volunteers from emergency service organisations throughout the year made recovery possible and their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Worst I’ve seen it for 17 years” for Emerald SES

Emerald SES controller Ben Owen has had a roller coaster 12 months.

“Where do you even begin?“ he asked, as he sat down to reflect on the year that was.

On Wednesday 9 June, Mr Owen said members had an inkling it would be a rough night.

“The service was moving a lot of crew down to Traralgon to help with the flooding so initially that was our biggest concern,“ he said.

But once Ben had knocked off work to head to the unit base, he found trees had began to fall across the roads.

“By 4pm we had all four vehicles on the road and by about 6.30pm, calls were coming in every other minute,“ Mr Owen said.

“That’s when we realised we would be quite busy.“

After 8pm, rescue calls started to come into the base, though phone reception was patchy.

“They were threat to life calls, people trapped in their houses mainly in Olinda,“ Mr Owen said.

“But there were trees on the roads everywhere. It was near on impossible to get to there.“

At 10pm, one of the SES Emerald’s response cars was crushed by a falling tree, the photos sending shockwaves through the community when they realised how volunteers had been so close to a fatal accident.

“We had a bit of radio coverage and I got a message through to say ’did you hear about the vehicle being crushed?’,“ Mr Owen recalled.

He recreated the moment he radioed back, gasping and clutching his chest.

“I was like ’Are the members okay?’ Because that’s all I cared about,“ he said.

“The crew heard cracking in the dark and didn’t know where to run but I guess they ran in the right direction because they’re alive and well.“

Hearing the members were ok only offered a moment of relief before members forged on with the task at hand.

“We still have a job to do. Those members ended up rescuing a man who had fallen from his veranda underneath his house. They carried him out to the road to the ambulance, which was quite an ordeal with trees falling down around them,“ Mr Owen said.

“They saved his life effectively.“

Those four members who had the near brush with death ended up spending the night on the floor of the Lilydale SES unit, unable to contact their families to tell them they were safe.

Mr Owen said the unit received 800 calls for help, but estimates there were even more jobs completed that weren’t called in.

“That night was out of the box,“ Mr Owen said.

“And the next five days were full on.

“The level of damage up on the hill had never been seen before. We just went one tree at a time.“

Mr Owen said the Emerald CFA captain had referred to the night as the scariest he’d experienced, even scarier than Black Saturday.

“That puts it into context that someone who’s fought roaring fires found the damage of the storm more horrendous and risky,“ Mr Owen said.

Another strong wind warning came in August but this time, the Emerald SES had a problem.

Heartless thieves had targeted the unit base the weekend before, stealing a generator battery, car trailer, wrecked car and four mag wheels.

“We can’t be losing power to the facilities on a night when we need to respond to people’s needs,“ Mr Owen said in August.

Strong winds hit again in October, again leaving hundreds without power for another week.

This time it was personal for Mr Owen.

His Cockatoo home was crushed by a tree around 6.30am on Friday 29 October.

Mr Owen’s wife and daughters were trapped inside but were fortunately unharmed.

“The tree landed where I was standing 10 minutes earlier,” Mr Owen said.

“My wife called to say a tree had fallen on the house. She was trapped in the bedroom.

“I drove back and ran down to where my daughters were bunkered in together for the night and they had a smashed window. So they and the greyhound crawled through the window and into my arms.”

A tree had penetrated the wall less than a metre above the girl’s heads.

“The dog is still very traumatised by loud bangs and windy days, which we all will be to some extent for a period of time,“ Mr Owen said.

“Most of the time I’m ok but the other night a pine tree had dropped some branches onto the road and it got me spooked. It was all brought back by the sappy smell.“

The house will be demolished in January.

But the year has finished on a high for the Emerald SES, which moved into their new state of the art headquarters in November.

The new facility includes five drive through engine bays with room for 10 vehicles and trailers, administrative offices, a training room and a well being area for volunteers.

The new base will help accommodate the 30 new volunteers who have expressed interest in joining the crew in the new year.

The eye of the storm

Belgrave CFA lieutenant Don Proud had a personal experience in the June storms, before heading into the station and helping with the aftermath.

“I was watching the television when we had a branch hit the roof and it scared the hell out of our kitten, which bolted straight under the table,” he said.

“Within probably half an hour I was at the station, geared up and we were part of the chainsaw response crew that started at Sassafras and worked our way up to William Ricketts Reserve.”

Mr Proud said 2021 saw 25 more callouts than 2020, although they saw a reduction in vehicle crashes.

“I joined the CFA in 2009 just before black Saturday and you think you’ll help the community, but it honestly sets into your blood,” he said.

“It becomes more than a volunteer thing, it becomes a part of your life to help people in any way you possibly can, whether it’s someone who’s had a tree fall through their house, a car accident or putting out a fire.”

Members of Monbulk CFA were right in the middle of the storm too.

5th lieutenant Josh Leigh said the June storm was the most memorable moment of 2021 for him and his brigade.

“We were called out to 17 rescues that evening but due to the trees down had extreme difficulty in reaching those in need,” he said.

“The weather was wild that night and the sounds of the squalling wind and falling trees around us as we did our best to reach the people in need was both scary and amazing.”

Mr Leigh said a big positive for the brigade in 2021 was the arrival of the new rescue truck.

“Our 1995 Rescue truck was replaced this year with a brand new appliance which was a fantastic moment for our brigade,” he said.

“Having a brand new, modern appliance to travel to road accident rescue incidents has been brilliant and allows us to arrive to some of the jobs on Mount Dandenong, where our old rescue truck would struggle a little, just that bit quicker.”

Mr Leigh said the biggest challenge of the year was continuing to deal with Covid-19 related restrictions.

“Regular lockdowns heavily restricted how we could train and because we are a brigade that also perform Road Accident Rescue and Rope Rescue functions in addition to responding to fire,” he said.

“Training and maintaining our skills is vital to be able to meet the needs of the community.”

Increased callouts

Despite a year of lockdown and restrictions, other CFA brigades saw callouts rise as well.

Ferntree Gully CFA Captain Seamus Smith said despite the reprieve of low summer bushfire activity, the brigade saw an increase of callouts in 2021 compared to 2020.

“In 2021 overall our brigade saw an increase in calls and ended the year with 247, up 36 from 2020 which finished on 211 calls.” he said.

Mr Smith said forced changes to training created more available time for members to meet in smaller groups.

“This has provided a great foundation moving forward and is something we will continue to use,” he said.

“Unfortunately due to ongoing restrictions we were unable to conduct any face to face community engagement activities for 2021, which we hope to be able to turn around in 2022.”

He said the brigade has plenty to look forward to in 2022, with a celebration of the 80th anniversary of their registration with the Country Fire Brigades Board in 1942.

“Our brigade is engaged with a local historian and author and we are looking forward to collecting all the rich history and achievements of the amazing volunteers over the 80 years to document these memories into a book for future generations,” he said.

“There have been many challenges and wonderful achievements over those years and we believe it is vital to share these moments to celebrate the outstanding Australian way of volunteering to support our fellow citizens.”

Camaraderie key through lockdowns

Upper Ferntree Gully CFA captain Peter Smith’s highlight of 2021 was the camaraderie shown by the brigade in the face of adversity.

“We weren’t allowed to train, we could only respond to emergencies. We were lucky that we didn’t have many fires, but we had other things we turned out to,” he said.

“Sometimes it was like a reunion when you went out there because you saw the people you haven’t seen for a couple of weeks.”

Mr Smith said the brigade hasn’t “got back to where we were when this all started.”

“It’s the way we’ve been able to recruit people and it’s the same for football clubs, cricket clubs and any club,” he said.

“They’re struggling getting people back because of the uncertainly about getting together in a big group and we are dealing with how do we manage our members.”

After 49 years as a member of CFA, Mr Smith said he still looks forward to helping the community every year.

“We were up there training last night, we had a dozen or so because we’ve got a few members fortunate enough to go on holidays, but I am looking forward to getting back to full pace again,” he said.

“Just getting back to normality is the hard part I think, getting back to the normal way we deal with each other,

“The community is right behind us all the time and that helps us out a lot, we are fortunate here in Upper Gully that we have a community that supports us very well.”

Upwey CFA captain Cliff Pancutt said 2021 presented unique challenges for the brigade.

“There were person challenges for a lot of our members,” he said.

“Being unable to engage with the community face to face and not going on station for an extended period of time were difficult challenges for all of us.”

Mr Pancutt said he hopes in 2022 his brigade can return to a “sense of normality.”

“We really missed that interaction with the community we had previously,” he said.

“Whether it was stalls at markets, open days or community events, they are all key events we missed and I’m looking forward to being able to hold them again.”