Out of the ashes of the devastating Cudlee Creek Fire rise stories of terror, courage and the solidarity of mates in the face of danger.
Sparked by a tree falling on a power line on Hollands Creek Road on December 20, the inferno claimed the life of one, injured 24, burnt through almost 24,000 hectares around Lobethal, Woodside, Charleston, Lenswood, Mount Torrens, Brukunga and Harrogate, destroyed 400 structures, 85 homes, 227 vehicles, and killed nearly 3,000
And in the words of one of the many CFS firefighters who battled it, it was “hell on Earth”.
William Pocock, of the Mount Pleasant Brigade and Barossa CFS Group Deputy, spent close to 18 hours straight on the ground that first day and described the blaze as one of the worst in memory.
“The fire took hold so quickly, there was just no way we could have done anything,” he said.
“It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a fire move, especially in scrub, they’ll move but they don’t move usually that quick… Fire jumping from hill to hill and downhill rapidly, a lot of convection, which means that it’s sucking the flame from the spot fires back into itself. It was just amazing conditions.”
For Williamstown Brigade Captain, Steve Elliott and his team, Lisa Croton, Chris Blasche, Neil Pearson, Bernard Stones and Dan Bondarenko, the catastrophic fire danger day began with a call out to Mount Crawford after a reported smoke sighting, but with no fire to be seen, the crew turned around.
“As we were driving back down from Mount Road, we heard the call out go from Hollands Creek Road,” said Steve.
Within five minutes the crew were told to “get your ar**s over there”.
Steve describes the terrifying moment when he and his team lost control of the fire on a property they’d been sent in to asset protect in the Croft Road area.
“We felt we were in control, until we felt a draft on our backs where the fire was actually drawing the air in, and we just called out, get out, get out!” he said.
The crew reacted on their training and moved to the closest place of protection, which was the actual dwelling itself.
“In that moment that fire just swept over and around us,” said Steve.
“Control to loss of control was seconds… We were covering it really well, but that moment in time where the air sucked in, it all went to hell.”
Two members of the crew, Neil and Lisa became trapped behind a shed during the intense burnover.
“I got to the point where I was thinking, oh s**t, we’re not going to get out of here,” said Lisa.
Fortunately, their team mate, Chris managed to get his mask on and retrieve the pair.
“As soon as I saw Chris standing there I knew that we had a chance, and he guided us around to the back of the house. Even just seeing another crew member there gave you that faith and hope to get out,” recalled Lisa, who had never before been faced with such a stark life and death situation while fighting a fire.
Once the team were back together, they clung tightly to one another’s hands as they made their way around the building.
“It was very, very frightening. You can’t breathe, you’re struggling to see, it became very smokey, the atmosphere was unbreathable,” said Steve.
“We were literally down low trying to get some form of air and basically instinct was looking out for each other, and making sure we got everybody… we just acted as a crew of mates.”
Steve and Lisa’s story is one of many close calls that were experienced by firefighters during the Cudlee Creek blaze, with multiple reported burnovers, including a Seaford crew who were forced to abandon their damaged truck after the flames tore over them.
Despite the danger, getting on with the job is at the forefront of the firefighters’ minds.
“Burnover is burnover, at the end of the day, if you walk away from it, you don’t really think about it, you just go on with what you’re doing,” said William.
The outpouring of support and gratitude from the community in the wake of the tragedy has been humbling for the volunteers, who insist they do it for love, without a second thought for compensation.
“People wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t want to do it. It’s the Australian way isn’t it? You help each other out,” said William.
Lyndoch volunteer, Jacque Edwards, who also fought the Cudlee Creek Fire, agreed.
“It’s the feeling of helping people, knowing that you’ve done your little bit to help someone else when they’re in need,” she said.
The team thank their rigorous training for giving them the tools to stay safe and do as much as they could to control the spread of the Cudlee Creek Fire, which was finally declared contained on New Year’s Eve after countless man-hours on the ground.
“It’s just a monumental effort from all the volunteers involved, not only just our group, or Region 2 or Region 1, it’s every Region that was involved,” said William.
“The farm fire units were also invaluable… they’re worth their weight in gold.”
The fierce camaraderie of the CFS “family”, which includes not just the firefighters themselves, but the partners, relatives and friends who support them, is unique, and surviving this fire together has brought them all closer than ever.
“It makes you feel proud to be part of this team. We were a fairly close team as it was but this has actually brought us closer again, we’ve got more faith and we know that we’ll all get out together,” said Lisa, who, despite her narrow escape, will be back out on the truck as soon as need arises.
“You make lasting friends from it, and strong bonds.”