Sonja Schaeffner at Morwell

Strike Team 1314 Hernes Oak Fire Gippsland Feb 2014 – Selby CFA

Sonja Schaeffner at Morwell

No make up needed. Sonja Schaeffner at Morwell.

Adriana Alvarez spoke with Selby CFA at the height of the bushfire season.

At the Selby CFA, brigade members are strolling in for their usual Sunday morning training session. It’s a small team who spend a lot of time together and their friendly banter shows they have formed a strong bond. Not all the team will be here today because it’s been a very busy season and some of the brigade are out on duty fighting fires in the NSW town of Delegate close to the Victorian border.

Their priority is to fight fires in the local area but they will travel to help other CFA crews where they are needed. This year the brigade has fought fires in the Grampians, Delegate and more recently in Morwell. Martha McKelvey, a first lieutenant, and husband John Hansen, a third lieutenant, come in and talk about the importance of following procedure. The paramilitary style operation must run with ordered efficiency if it is to contain fires and keep fire fighters and the public, safe. Safety out in the field is of the utmost importance.

John has come in despite having been out fighting containment lines just the day before, he discusses the training and how the safety of the crews always comes first. The crew are always looking out for each other and constantly on the look out for dangers. The training ensures everyone knows how to use the equipment, checking that it’s all in good working order and practising all the things they would do in a fire situation. “The training you get is very valuable in your personal life and all aspects of your career,” says John. “For example one of the courses, called Fire Line Leadership, is basically a management leadership course, which covers all sorts of conflict resolution and that sort of thing. Everything we do needs to be formally qualified by training. That really came out of Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday. If I’m going to use a chainsaw I first have to be qualified.”

The brigade which was started in 1926 has 48 members including fire fighters and support crew. Support crew don’t go out to fight fires but do the important role of upkeep, cleaning, making lunches, fundraising, etc. “Fundraising is a big thing for the brigade as well, not everything is paid by the CFA. One of the trucks we have at the moment is completely funded by the community so we do a lot of sausage sizzles,” laughs Sonja Schaeffner.

Anyone 18 years and over can become a volunteer firefighter. At the moment their numbers are quite healthy but they always need people. People bring a huge diversity of skills to the brigade and they come from all walks of life. It’s a real mix and being volunteers it’s a fairly healthy atmosphere.

Sonja sums it up beautifully, “When I first joined the brigade I didn’t realise how much I would get personally from the people around here, that’s amazing. Not just what we do but the people that are in the brigade, the relationships you form with them. You don’t need to get paid if you get that, really.”

These photos of the Hernes Oak and Morwell fire in Gippsland were taken by Sonja Schaeffner as the day unfolded.

Hernes Oak fire morning

The fire started two days earlier ignited by a lightning strike, so far it had burned 150 ha. Our shift began at 6am. Driving along Mc Donalds track to our fill point, air support was also attacking the fire from above. Our task was not to let the fire jump into the nearby paddocks.

Hernes Oak fire afternoon

The wind change came…..and the fire jumped containment lines into a paddock. We filled up as quick as possible while listening to the radio traffic becoming frantic. At first sight of the grassfire we quickly get onto it. Despite all efforts we were unable to stop the fire before it reached the blue gum plantation. Now unstoppable, all we could do was watch it burn until it was safe to move on.

Hernes Oak fire

Marina and I were just happy to make it through safely.

Hernes Oak fire, Morwell Gippsland

Back at the fill point it’s a very different view from the morning. The view from above shows the fire now running towards Morwell and into open cut coal mines. Our next stop was the Hazelwood open cut mine.

Morwell fire 2014

After a 12 hour shift we were on the way back to our accommodation when the fire jumped the Princess Freeway and threatened Morwell. All of Morwell was filled with thick smoke and the fire seemed to come from 3 sides. Another grass fire attack started and kept us busy for a few hours.


Morwell fire

A quick break.


We finished the shift at 12am after 18 hours on the fire ground.

Hernes Oak and Morwell fire 2014

The next morning we went blacking out in a pine plantation which had burned over night.

To find out more about the Selby CFA click here.









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