It was no stroke of luck that kept the toll from last Friday’s Millingandi fire down to just one home and five sheds.
John Cullen, Incident Controller for the Millingandi Fire and the Far South Coast RFS Superintendent said his team were well-prepared for the forecast horror day, and he credits that preparedness with helping to keep the final toll so low.
“Friday was well and truly publicised as being a blow up day to the southern area. We had a regular hook up on the Thursday and ensured our IMT (Incident Management Team) staff were prepped and ready in the control centre,” Mr Cullen said on Monday.
“We had prepositioned heavy plant (machinery) and had air support on standby at Mogo.
“Twenty out of 25 local brigades opened their doors, which was a really good response and we had around 70 (RFS) members ready.”
At the fire control centre in Bega on Friday John Cullen was watching conditions closely.
“It was a pretty still morning compared to the Tuesday before and as the morning grew so did the temperature. At 12 (noon) I looked at the screen temperature and it was 40 degrees in here.
“Then the wind picked up and I thought it was pretty serious,” RFS Superintendent Cullen said.
At 12pm a triple 000 emergency call from a member of the public alerted the RFS to the fire.
The fire started north of Boggy Creek Road and south of Forest Lane, initially spreading to the south east under a north westerly wind.
“We got crews moving. The fire was working south east because of the effect of the north westerly.
“Brigade members got in there and were working on that fire. We got dozers working quickly.
“We warned residents along Boggy Creek Road and in adjunct areas that the fire was coming towards them,” Superintendent Cullen said.
But it was the coming southerly change that most concerned fire fighters.
“We knew the change was coming. We had information from the towers.”
“It hit at around 3pm and the fire just took off north.
“And straight away we had to get emergency warnings out there. Our priority was property protection and people’s lives.”
Red Gum Lane residents in Yellow Pinch were told to evacuate to Merimbula.
North of Yellow Pinch, Wolumla residents were also told to put their Bush Fire Survival Plans into effect.
“While this was happening we started to roll more dozers and by 3.30-4 pm we had three helicopters working on that fire,” Cullen said.
“I thought this will be shocking because of the fire behaviour and the speed with which that fire moved… I couldn’t see dwellings surviving.
It wasn’t safe in Yellow Pinch, it wasn’t safe for us, we had to get out.
We couldn’t get in to attack some areas.”
Evacuation alerts then went out for Red Gum Road and Potoroo Palace. Police knocked on doors and aircraft with loud speakers hailed anyone who appeared not to have received the warnings.
Evacuation centres were established in Merimbula and at Bega.
“My fear was loss of property and possible loss of lives.
Once we got stock on things and some intel back from the field, and got a machine in there to map the fire, we saw it hadn’t crossed the road at Red Gum and Potoroo.”
More moisture in the air on Friday evening brought some respite and enabled crews to tidy some of the fire up. Crews worked throughout the night and into the next day.
“We had to go back in and determine what the loss was, what assets were lost and that there wasn’t any bodies. That was done on the Saturday. By 10 am we had the highway back open and by 2.30pm all the road blocks were back open.”
Superintendent Cullen said the fires, which burnt an area of 215 hectares with a six kilometre perimeter, were being controlled but were not contained on Monday.
“I’m just amazed at the efforts of all concerned; the fire fighters, the Police, the volunteers who fed and rested fire crews, all those members of the public who evacuated when asked and didn’t complain.
“In the end we lost one house and five sheds.
On the day with the weather, I think we did pretty well.
It could have been a hell of a lot worse.”