Fairfax Media's Ben Smyth was invited to a Rural Fire Service hazard reduction burn on Tuesday night.
It was one of the largest operations for the year, involving about 15 trucks and 40 volunteers from brigades including Jellat, Candelo, Buckajo, Wolumla, Merimbula, Burragate, Rocky Hall, Wyndham and Numbugga.
The job – a 40ha outcrop of African lovegrass outside Candelo.
I was handed a spare set of PPE (personal protective equipment) by Jellat brigade captain Clem Barnden, before following a convoy of RFS trucks out of town to the fire ground in Niagara.
As the sun began to set and a light sprinkling of rain in the distance caused a double rainbow to arc over Candelo, Harman Kampman gave the gathered volunteers a briefing on the fire plan and various brigades’ sectors of responsibility.
Several volunteers who hadn’t encountered an African lovegrass burn before, and I, were taken aside and given a specific briefing on what to expect from the dense, oily and fast-burning invasive grass.
There was also a warning to watch out for wombat holes in the dark!
The warnings on lovegrass were well made – on a cold winter’s night with zero wind, the grass burned quickly with an intense heat and flames up to two metres high.
The professionalism of the Jellat volunteers with whom I tagged along was outstanding – working as a cohesive unit, progressing through their allocated sector and never taking their eyes off the fire (as well as being accommodating of my inexperience despite the potential novelty of having a reporter along for the ride).
With Clem keeping watch and Robbie perched safely in the crew compartment atop the back of the Jellat truck with the water pumps thrumming away, Nathan used his drip torch to set things going, while Christian followed behind to put out the initial line of flames, keeping the burn travelling in the required direction.
Peter made sure the trucks were kept clear of the flames - and wombat holes - and helped rake over the smouldering edges of the sector.
On a couple of occasions, the intense heat and grass oil combined to create spectacular mini-tornadoes of fire, at a guess about 10 metres tall.
Creating their own wind, the fires took off uphill to meet the fires coming up the opposite side of the ridge lit by one of the other brigades – an impressive sight at night and an incredible force of nature I hadn’t properly understood until seeing it up this close.
I can’t imagine the horror of seeing it out of control and devouring personal property and livelihoods.
I left the RFS volunteers to their night’s work, getting a lift off the fire ground with group officer Rick Jennings.
During the trip Rick was patched in to a 000 call from a motorist on the Snowy Mountains Hwy who could see the glow even from that distance.
As it turns out, as the Jellat brigade members were finishing up and leaving, they were called to a motor vehicle fire and didn’t get back to base until well after midnight.
It may be the coldest time of the year, but the threat of fire – and the commitment of those who attend them – remains strong.