Bushfire threat binds tight-knit communities

Suzanne Benson and Eleanor (6) acted decisively to evacuate the blaze, which reached the Benson family’s boundary fences. Photo Ryan Malcolm.
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Camaraderie and concern for each other helped locals in neighboring Latrobe Valley townships during bushfires. Ryan Malcolm reports

Suzanne Benson found herself racing around the house, frantically organising her four young children for what she promised was a “practice run” to prepare them if a fire ever threatened their Yinnar South property.

As the mercury soared above 40, the Benson family’s relaxing Saturday was turned on its head, as news filtered through that a rogue lightning strike on a recent Friday night had ignited a blaze in nearby Upper Middle Creek, which had quickly flared out of control under the cover of darkness.

Leaving her husband Tate and their dog Jim behind to defend the property, Mrs Benson piled the children into the family four-wheel-drive and evacuated to the safety of her mother’s house in Yinnar, a further eight kilometres away from the rapidly approaching fire front.

“I didn’t tell the kids until that night that the practice was the real deal,” said Mrs Benson.

“I’d handed a sheet of paper to the kids and told them to go and pack these things. It’s quite sweet when you see what kids pack, you really see what’s precious to them.”

The March 3 fires, which razed two homes and crisped almost 2000 hectares of hilly bushland in the Latrobe Valley, caused panic among the Yinnar community, with many choosing to evacuate early and leave their homes at the mercy of the blaze.

For two townships with a population of only 1500 combined, residents of both Yinnar and Yinnar South have considerable experience in dealing with the threat of bushfire, after a duo of bushfires blazing through the Strzelecki ranges bore down on the townships in the summer of 2009, two weeks before the infamous Black Saturday fires to the north-east.  

The Benson family dog, Jim, became a CFA mascot throughout the firefighting effort. Photo Ryan Malcolm.

“You like to think you’re all prepared but then when it happens you start to think you could do with an extra water tank or an extra hose… we’ve cleared a lot, if you want to live in the bush (bushfires) are something you need to expect,” said Mrs Benson.

Yinnar South’s hilly, winding terrain has long rendered many homes in the area inaccessible for CFA fire engines, ensuring that fire fighters often collaborate closely with locals to understand the terrain and pre-emptively outline strategies to prevent the blaze spreading.

Grant Hoghton, a lifelong Yinnar South resident who has worked closely with the local CFA throughout the planning and construction of his new Yinnar South property, stressed the importance of the CFA maintaining a healthy relationship with the locals during these dangerous times.

“The locals are really important for the CFA to work with… it’s so important for firefighters to be able to keep their bearings and with a fire bearing down on them that’s often tough to do,” said Mr Hoghton.

“Having a local around to let (firefighters) know exactly where they are is really important.”

While Mr Hoghton assisted friends in defending their Whitelaws Track residence, his mother, Barbara Hoghton acted as a lookout for those who had evacuated and left their homes to face the wrath of the oncoming blaze.

Whitelaws track’s winding terrain made firefighting extremely difficult. Photo Ryan Malcolm.

“Lots of people had no idea if their houses would make it through the day, it was extremely tough for them to leave,” said Ms Hoghton.

With a spectacular view of Morwell National Park and the surrounding valley, Ms Hoghton remained in her home for as long as possible in order to provide updates to worrisome families who had evacuated to Yinnar township, while remaining conscious of the fire only two kilometres further down Whitelaws track.

“You can really see how tough it is for fire fighters to defend some of these homes, it’s impossible for them to make a quick escape.”

“It was important to just let those who had evacuated know that their homes were still there, that it was going to be okay.”

This sense of community has long been a staple of Yinnar and its surrounds, with a relatively small population that sees many grow up in the area and remain local, often to work on viable farmland or at either of the nearby power plants in Jeeralang or Yallourn.

Such a small populace invariably creates a tight-knit community, one that Mrs Benson claims was integral in managing the fire and ensuring the safety of the townspeople.

 “Because we’re at the top of the road, as we were evacuating, I was calling into houses that still had cars in the driveway to tell them about the fire… they’re in pretty dense bush so couldn’t see the smoke,” said Mrs Benson.

“If there was a car in the driveway I called and told them to get out.”

Other residents employed what would become known as a ‘communication tree’, where those at the top of the street would phone their neighbour to inform them of the fire situation, before this information was relayed to the next house down.

“It’s just so nice to be part of a community, I’ve gotten to know more people that live around here in the last five weeks than I have in the last 15 years, everyone just bands together.”

With just over 10 years between the Black Saturday fires and this most recent experience, citizens of the Yinnar area are more prepared than ever for the prospect of bushfires, with many utilising fire kits and outlining an evacuation plan if the need should arise.

Those who have always maintained that they would stay to defend their home are much more aware of the dangerous reality nowadays, Ms Benson sighed.

“Tate’s father always said he’d stay but he realised as the fire approached that he couldn’t do anything.”

“He got in his car with flames approaching and looked back to say, ‘you’ve been a really lovely home.’”

Despite this, the Benson family home survived the flames, thanks to the tireless work of both the Yinnar South Volunteers CFA and the main CFA force in Morwell.

Eighty-three-year-old Adrian Walker has been a CFA Volunteer with Yinnar South for over 60 years, and was part of the first response team that reached Middle Creek immediately after the rogue lighting strike ignited the area. Splitting his time between farming and fighting local fires, Mr Walker has noticed this welcome change in the preparedness of Yinnar South residents, with a large majority spending considerably in order to protect their homes.

“With so much more media attention and information nowadays, people obviously are much more aware of ways to protect themselves,” said Mr Walker.

“A lot of people have firefighting pumps and spray units which they can use to suppress the fire, and a lot of them did some wonderful work helping the volunteer firefighters.”

“People in this environment know now that fire is a great threat.”

Ms Benson also echoed this sentiment, noting her neighbour’s house “looked like a water park”.

“The CFA came up the road and (our neighbour) walked out of his house with a beer in his hand,” laughed Ms Benson.

The level of comfort that this quiet country town has developed towards fire is a testament to the relationship locals have created with the volunteer CFA says Mr Walker, and this relationship has seen locals take it upon themselves to assist volunteers when the opportunity has arisen.

“The Yinnar South volunteers are extremely experienced, we’ve been doing this a long time and by using common sense and understanding the area, we’ve been very successful.”

“We were lucky enough to have young people on motorbikes with spray units to put the edge of a hot fire out in difficult conditions… way up in steep, difficult country.”

“We have a great affinity for the locals and they for us, they really support us well.”

While two houses weren’t lucky enough to make it through the ordeal, the combined efforts of CFA forces and local residents ensured the Yinnar area has emerged from the experience an even more prepared and cohesive community, according to Ms Benson.

“The boys did an incredible job and it wasn’t just defending their homes, I think someone went down to the café in Yinnar and bought them out of egg and bacon rolls for the boys defending their homes.”

“It’s a real community up here and we’re so lucky to be a part of it.”