One of three divisional commanders on Friday at the Millingandi fire, Gavin Mills of Merimbula has his own indicator of a bad fire day.
“When your eyelids start to burn when you walk outside you know it’s bad,” Gavin said from RFS headquarters yesterday (Wednesday) as he recalled the past week.
Interestingly the RFS had planned for almost exactly this scenario in 2012.
“We did a scenario almost identical to what we faced last Friday, except in a reverse order,” he said. “That experience was an enormous help.”
Gavin was in charge of four group captains with around eight appliances in each group last Friday.
At Bega RFS headquarters at the time of the call, he went into rugged country around the former Millingandi Leisure Park on Boggy Creek Road to fight the initial blaze.
“The fire started in quite rugged country so to start with we were struck with the problem of getting anything near it.”
Gavin is a professional fire fighter who has been in his current role for nearly two years, and Merimbula group captain for six years, having returned to fire fighting after a break.
When he arrived at the fire ground, the fire was running south through open grass.
Crews from Pambula and Merimbula were also trying to get access to the fire.
“Because of the access issues, we asked for support from two dozers and two helicopters initially,” he said.
He soon realised the fire was out of control and called for back-up as he considered the safety of the crews.
One dozer was already covering the western flank, and another on the eastern flank.
“We noticed the fire on top of the ridge, starting to spot down into open country first 50 metres, then 100 metres and 300 metres in front.
“I started to get really worried at that point and my priorities switched to getting people out of the way.”
Then came the dreaded news that the southerly was expected to reach 90 kilometres an hour and it became clear that properties and lives were under threat.
“That was a bit of a heart stopper for me, they gave us some really hard figures and we didn’t have much time” he said.
“From then on it really became a running battle.”
Spot fires were being extinguished to the south and crews moved to the Millingandi area to see what they could do.
With scribe Brent Occleshaw of Burragate, Gavin raced through paddocks and locked gates to get in front of the fire and regather crews.
“It was becoming very obvious that the fire was completely out of control and running north,” he said.
“With our crews out of the way, there was still a large amount of civilians at Potoroo Palace and we said go to Merimbula or Wolumla – get out of its path.”
The next hour or two went by in a blur and then the fire jumped the Princes Highway into Yellow Pinch.
“There was a period of time when we all got out of the way and just let the fire run through, following a vain but courageous attempt to stop it,” he said.
After sunset when the air moisture content rose, crews were able to return and put out numerous spot fires near the Princes Highway and build containment lines with bulldozers.
“We knew we had lost houses but had no idea what number, we had no idea if everyone got out,” Gavin said, adding police had quickly evacuated Red Gum Lane at about 3pm that afternoon.
Crews fell into the familiar rhythm of extinguishing fires.
“The fire had self-extinguished within a foot out one house, the only things that saved those houses were sprinklers and good preparation,” he said.
“How others survived I couldn’t even begin to explain.”
As work continues to ensure every ember is out, Gavin reflects on the fire fighters commitment.
“A lot of those stations were already standing up (ahead of the fire), had taken annual leave and time away from their families to be ready,” he said.
He spent three 12 hour days on the ground over the weekend and on Monday, knowing his family was prepared at home.
“I’m so proud of my boys (aged 12 and 14), they had packed ready to evacuate if necessary.”
They work on, building more containment lines, preparing for more harsh weather, assessing what survived, what didn’t and trying to rest.
“We’re trying to rest ourselves and our crews by using outside crews, so we’ll be ready for the next cycle of next Thursday/Friday.”
He believed this fire season is more in sync with those of years gone by.
“For the past three years it’s been good, now it’s returning to a normal season and a lot of old fire fighters will tell you it’s getting back to normal.”