History

From Tree Branches to Helicopters

Tim Walker

ON 19 May 2013, Julimar Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade was treated to a talk by the late Gaven Donegan which revolved around a comprehensive history of the development of the now Julimar Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade. Some of his comments about the earlier years were not first hand, but stories handed down prior to his involvement in bush fire control.

Gaven commenced his talk by going back to the very first years of settlement in the West Toodyay region, which was all bushland. The first recorded bushfires were started by aboriginals lighting fires in their own traditional method of helping with hunting for food. Settlers also kept the process of lighting small, controllable fires to clear land and help revegetate for some time. Occasionally fires did get out of control and the settlers would do their best to put them out, with the only means of control using green leafy tree branches to bash the fire out where possible. They would also use animal pads to burn back from the head of the fire.

However, there were very few settlers, some on original land grants of homestead blocks, others were employees belonging to the Midland Railway Company which had a holding of 20,000 acres stretching between the Julimar Forest and West Toodyay. From these humble beginnings fire fighting gradually became more advanced with horse drawn drays and manually operated pumps. It was still very hard work and possibly not all that effective at times, but certainly were instrumental in developing a huge thirst with many hilarious stories to be told years after these events, with many a good story revolving around leftover ammunition dumps and unexploded 25 pounders in the Julimar Forest area.

Another unlikely source of help came from rabbit plagues, which effectively removed all the pasture and bush regrowth down to virtually bare earth. For those who may not have lived in this era, rabbits were a national problem from east to west. Other causes of naturally occurring firebreaks to help fire fighting in those days were animal pads from wild horses and timber cuttings tracks which bisected some of these fire prone areas between the Julimar Forest and West Toodyay areas.

As time moved on and more settlers came into West Toodyay (now stretching over an area from the Bindoon Army Camp to Morangup in the south), farmers began to clear land for farming in the more traditional sense.

The clearing of land using dozers and, in some cases, General Grant tanks dragging a ball and chain between them and ripping out the vegetation became more common. That and the controlled burns which followed was the beginning of district brigades as we know it today. However, this total area was still known as West Toodyay.

Of note at this time was the old six-wheel drive Studebaker truck which is fondly remembered by all those associated with it, especially how it would literally go anywhere. It now survives as a museum piece at the Nungarin Machinery Museum.

Moving on in time with more improved pastures, crops and the use of superphosphate, bush fire control entered into a new phase which saw self-priming pumps, fire permits required for clearing fires, mandatory firebreaks, no harvesting on Sundays (not all areas), knapsack sprays to be carried on all harvesting vehicles and spark arresters on all harvesting engines.

At around this time, but before the advent of diesel powered trains, coal fired steam engines hauling heavy loads up the Avon Valley became a source of more get away fires. They were also supposed to have a spark arrester built into the smoke stack but the stories repeated many times by farmers at the brunt of these loco lit fires was that the loco crews would put a crowbar down the smoke stack and through the arrester to obtain more draft through the fire box and heat exchangers.

We then saw yearly controlled burns of the railway reserve on each side of the tracks from the Julimar Forest to Toodyay as added protection and safety precaution from these fires. This was an invaluable source of training for brigade members and ensuring fire equipment was in good working order as this was usually done in late November, prior to harvesting. Not only was this practice considered essential for the brigades but, regardless of the loco issue, it provided a substantial regional firebreak, not only in this area but on a state wide basis.

In the 1970s radio was introduced to bush fire control. John Dival and his wife, Lois, from West Toodyay established the first base station for the local West Toodyay area. Gaven asked John to fill us in on the details. This is another lengthy subject and certainly worth recording as it became an integral part of modern bush fire control. Please see excerpts from John’s talk in another column. I have digressed, back to Julimar and its first years.

It was also around 1985 that Julimar became a brigade in its own right, headed up by mainly captains and 1st lieutenants! This was later rationalised as it appeared that there were too many in control and not enough men on the pumps.

Gaven, then in charge of the large property known as Springbank, was the first captain, followed by local identities such as Vern Chitty, Max Chitty, David Chitty and later Royston Sinclair.

Gaven later expressed his grief and praise for the late John Campbell who took over as Fire Control Officer after Gaven left the area. John played a major part in the formation of the Julimar Brigade. As an anecdotal story, Gaven pointed out that the first Julimar brigade truck was housed in John’s garage at the expense of his wife’s car, which drew much laughter and mirth.

Today the JVBFB stands testimony to those earlier years, the men and women who had the foresight to seek better protection from the catastrophic effects of uncontrolled bushfires.

The brigade has around 40 DFES trained and registered firefighters plus another 20 auxiliary members to support firefighters at the coal face and fundraising when required.

The Julimar Fire Shed was built in the early 90s by the Shire but the volunteers have transformed it to include an airconditioned radio room and briefing room, equipment store and, in a separate building, The Fireplace, with modern facilities for preparation of food, meetings, training and a well-patronised Friday night for a get together over a BBQ or similar.

Very few would remember fighting fires with a tree branch. A few may remember manning a semi centrifugal or a manual piston pump, but most will remember the later days of farmers with their trucks with a small self-priming pump with an unreliable engine, and today, with modern fast fire fighting equipment and radio control with which we are all familiar.

We have indeed come a long way. We will never stop some fires starting - some beyond our control, of course. However there still remains lots more to learn to stop events such as the 2009 fire in Toodyay and other major fires across the state.

We all owe a huge amount to these men and women of earlier years who helped develop the modern firefighter.

To conclude Gaven’s tale, we have seen the control of bushfires rise from a simple tree branch and lots of energy to radio control to heli-tankers arriving from Perth to help with bush fire control.