Illawong Rural Fire Service Brigade
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 December 1997 - overview

Wollondilly / Picton Fire December 1997 (Section 44 Fire)

 Menai / Illawong / Alfords Point - December 1997

Coonabarrabran December 1997  (Section 44 Fire)

 Menai - Old Illawarra Road Hazard Reduction October 1997

Menai  -  Walsh Close, Hazard Reduction October 1997
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December 1997 proved to be one of the busiest months for bush fire activity for both NSW and the Illawong Brigade in the last 3 years.

The Illawong 81 truck logged over 3,000 km travelling to and from fire sites over New South Wales.

Some members families had to be evacuated as the Illawong, Menai and Alfords Point area were themselves threatened by raging bush fires on December 2,1997.

Main roads such as Alfords Point Bridge and Old Illawarra Road were closed for considerable periods of time ( 3- 15 hours) as the smoke billowed around the area making driving unsafe.
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Wollondilly / Picton Fire - (Section 44 declared fire)

This fire was burning south of Sydney in the Burragorang Valley, threatening the village of Oakdale  as well as the Wollondilly National Park and the catchment area for Burragorang Dam.

By the time the fire had been brought under control it had burned out  many 000's of ha.

Illawong members attended this fire ground for 9 days over a period of 3 weeks.

Each day usually comprised of 2 shifts with a crew of 5 or 6 people on each crew.

For the morning shift, start time was around 0400 at the Illawong station then travelling to Picton for an 0600 briefing , returning around 18.00 - 19.00. The afternoon shift started at around 15.00 at the station and returned back around 09.00 - 10.00 the next day.

The first crew into Picton on Friday 19 December enjoyed a hasty lash up of greasy eggs, greasy bacon and buttered bread and after a quick briefing headed off in convoy to the fire ground.

After travelling for approximately 1.5 hours the convoy stopped at Murphy's Flat to regroup and let everyone catch up. Travelling in convoy with a combination of large Cat 1 tankers as well as strikers and personnel carriers over narrow dirt roads meant a slow and dusty trek.

This journey would be repeated a number of times over the coming days. Helicopters were later used to ferry crews to and from their vehicles to minimise the wear and tear on vehicles and personnel.

Following a further briefing the task force was split up into it's various assigned working groups and the teams headed out.

The standard of food rapidly improved a few days later with an external catering organisation being brought in to feed and water the troops. There's nothing like coming off the fire line hot and dusty and sitting down to a good meal and a cup of tea !

The RFS meeting point was later changed to the Picton show ground to accommodate the greater number of trucks and personnel that were being called up to fight the spreading fire.

This also conveniently had a large oval nearby which also acted as the helicopter despatch zone. One of the Iroquois helicopters even had suspected bullet holes in it.

Over the next 3 weeks Illawong crews were mainly used for blacking out areas that had been burned by the bush fire as well putting in control lines (small areas deliberately lit under controlled conditions) to stop the spread of the main fire.

Each shift usually lasted around 16 - 20 hours (from departure time from the station to arrival back at the station) with 5 - 6 people per shift.

Total man hours would be in the vicinity of 1,000 hours - all of this unpaid time by volunteers - many who sacrificed wages to provide assistance.

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  Menai / Illawong / Alfords Point - December 1997

Illawong Brigade was involved with this fire in the Lucas Heights / Barden Ridge area starting on Friday 28 November 1997.

One crew worked on Friday night putting in a control line, roughly at the end of the 'Jet Trail', on the western side of Old Illawarra Road using the Illawong 51 as the pumper vehicle. Mainbar 71 acted as the water resupply vehicle.

Keeping crews fed and watered in the field is always a challenge. On this occasion it turned out to be hamburgers from a well known chain at 4am. While adequate, this was not one of life's memorable gastronomic experiences.

Further crews worked over the weekend putting in more control lines and responding to outbreaks as they occurred.

The fires in this area became much fiercer on late Monday and on Tuesday 2 December, when strong westerly winds drove the fire front towards houses in the Menai, Alfords Point and Illawong area.

Unfortunately a number of houses were destroyed and damaged by fire. Fortunately, there was no loss of life at the time.

Waterfall 81 in the vicinity of  Barnes Cresent, Menai during  the fires on Tuesday 2 December

Crews from Illawong were actively involved in fighting these fires and the subsequent blacking out and mopping up needed to ensure these fires did not flare up again.

One member was working overseas in Hong Kong and got the news from his wife on Tuesday that the whole of Illawong was covered in smoke and she was likely to be evacuated soon. Not good news to hear 7,000 miles away. !  He promptly cancelled his business trip and got on the next QANTAS flight home arriving at 07.30 on Wednesday to find his family staying with friends. His wife and family had been evacuated at 22.00 on Tuesday night and had chosen to spend the night with friends. Included were pets from neighbours who had been unable to return home due to blocked roads.
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 Coonabarrabran December 1997  (Section 44 Fire STARG )
With 3 hours notice Illawong  put together a crew of 5 volunteers to assist with the major bush fires at Coonabarrabran (north west of Sydney).

The crew took the Illawong  81 truck ( Cat 1 heavy tanker) and were working on the fire ground for over 5 days. The Illawong crew was split into day and night crews and supplemented with members from other Sutherland Brigades, notably Woronora.

This crew also suffered the fate of being out of area when the major fires affected their own local area.

In total over 300 man hours were spent by this crew on the fire ground and travelling to / from 'Coona'.

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 Menai - Old Illawarra Road - Hazard Reduction October 1997

  This hazard reduction had been postponed a few months earlier due to an EPA 'no burn' restriction being imposed 24 hours before the planned date.

As matter of 20/20 hindsight, if the entire area had been able to be hazard reduced, it would have minimised some of the risk that occurred when the unburnt area caught alight due to spotting over in the December 1997 fires.

The area involved was a strip of land approximately  30 - 35 metres wide and 0.5 km long, along Old Illawarra Road, Menai (opposite Menai High School)

  This area was hazard reduced in October ,1997.                                      This area was burned due to spotting, in December 1997.

These 2 photos show an area within 300 metres of each other. The photos were taken in late January 98.

The photo of the hazard reduced area (on the left) shows low level fire intensity.

The photo of the Dec 97 fire (on the right) affected area shows very high fire intensity - note the blackened trees and bare ground.

A good example of how controlled, low fire level intensity hazard reductions can help prevent and / or minimise uncontrolled burning.
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  Menai  -  Walsh Close, October 1997
 This was a controlled low level hazard reduction. The main aim being to reduce the fuel load at the back of houses facing onto to Walsh Close, Menai.
- had not burned and had a high fuel load.

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April 1998.

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