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Unsung heroes of the East Gippsland fires

A town larrikin saves his neighbours’ homes, a doctor gives an elderly couple a place to stay and a savvy local saves properties with a strategic backburn. These are the incredible tales of survival and selflessness from the fires.

When disasters hit, it can bring out the best in people. Like the Mallacoota larrikin who has spent half his life getting into trouble but who stepped up when wildfire wrecked his New Year’s Eve plans.

He and his dad grabbed hoses, buckets and rakes and worked around the clock to douse spot fires as embers rained down. Young and strong, the black sheep did the lion’s share.

Neighbours who have looked down on “the larrikin” for years might now see him in a different light, says one witness. Some owe their houses to him.

A Mallacoota emergency worker who has worked in risky occupations before points out that many of the real heroes of the New Year fires don’t say much. Their actions do the talking, not their social media accounts.

This is true in every community hit by fires around Australia. The story of what happened in the “villages” of Genoa and Gipsy Point, inland from Mallacoota, is typical of what could have happened anywhere.

It is a story of mateship, courage and kindness played out on a small stage. One of many.

Unsung heroes of the East Gippsland fires

Frank Condello at his property Yatte Yattah Nursery, near Milton on the NSW south coast. Picture: David Swift.Source:News Corp Australia

Frank Condello’s home and nursery business has been devastated by fire, and he and his wife Lynn, were lucky to escape alive. Picture: David Swift.Source:News Corp Australia

Across the border in southern NSW, for instance, an old man and his wife were rescued after their roof caught fire and collapsed. When Frank Condello, 80, woke up in hospital, he and his wife Lynette had nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

They were shocked, lost and homeless. A doctor, Paul Rothe, saw their despair and took them to stay at his house.

Next morning, he took Frank shopping. A local menswear shop “shouted” the old man new clothes – and a new wallet in which $400 cash mysteriously appeared.

Such stories of offhand generosity resonate everywhere the fires have hit. Then there are the other stories, of self-reliant people tackling official inertia for years before the fires started – and a bewildering bureaucratic tangle afterwards.

The flames can destroy anything except true grit — and red tape.

The Old Genoa Bridge, built between 1926-1928, went up in flames during the fires. Picture: Heritage Council Victoria/ TwitterSource:Supplied

When the handful of permanent residents of Genoa and Gipsy Point faced the fire they had expected for years, they stood alone. Leaving would let spot fires destroy everything they owned. They backed themselves to save their own.

They had been promised a CFA tanker from Mallacoota but the promise evaporated in the fog of battle and fear of repercussions: the CFA command was unwilling to bend strict rules because of the risk of falling trees.

The absence of the promised tanker did not shake their resolve.

At Gipsy Point, Ian Mitchell and Dave Peters worked four days and nights with hardly any sleep.

“Mitch”, who’s 70, admits grabbing a couple of hours sleep each day but he says “young” Dave, a mere lad of 45, “hardly slept at all”. They used a Toyota 4WD ute with a “slip-on” tank and fire pump to patrol the almost deserted district, nailing spot fires. When the danger finally passed, they had saved all but two houses and two small cabins out of 18 dwellings.

Up the road, another team of quiet achievers saved Genoa. None wants to be singled out for praise. There is Darren Joiner, Steve Linehan, Dennis Brownlie and Dennis’s father-in-law Rob De Geus.

And there is Dave Severs, who runs the old Genoa hotel. The pub lost its top storey to flames ... back in 1933. This time it got by with a little help from its friends.

ADF helicopter arriving in Genoa. Please: Leanna SeversSource:Supplied

The pub was luckier than the historic timber bridge nearby, closed to traffic years ago but kept open as a footbridge. When the bridge caught fire, Leanna Severs, her mother Wendy and some visitors ran buckets of water, but they couldn’t beat the flames.

The charred bridge, built in 1919, is now condemned. The “missing” tanker would have saved it in minutes but CFA’s caution is understandable, given the terrible deaths its volunteer firefighters have suffered, notably at Linton in 1998 and in the Dandenongs in Ash Wednesday, 1983. In each case, entire crews perished.

The risk of falling trees trapping or crippling a tanker on the road underlines an uncomfortable truth for authorities in Victoria, where trees are not routinely cleared back from roads to ensure they won’t block or hit passing vehicles if they fall.

Australian Defence Force personnel unload evacuees belongings from Mallacoota at the RAAF Base East Sale. Picture: Department of DefenceSource:Supplied

Royal Australian Navy Aircrewman assists civilian evacuees onto a MRH-90 at Mallacoota.Source:Supplied

When police escorted convoys of tourists from Mallacoota, they crossed the border to NSW where the highway was safe because firebreaks had been cleared on both sides. A simple precaution that creates a defensible strip and makes a safe escape route – and a supply line to transport essentials to fire-ravaged communities.

Victorian holiday makers led to safety by road might be grateful that other state governments are more willing to clear roadsides. Similarly, the shipload of tourists rescued by the Navy might be grateful that (after a long, costly battle) a new breakwater was built at Mallacoota to replace one that had been destroyed for strategic reasons in wartime.

Without the breakwater, the Navy could not have safely lifted hundreds of exhausted and frightened people after the fire. With the roads virtually closed, it was vital to use boats because aircraft were severely restricted.

Mallacoota residents, tourists and their pets are evacuated to HMAS Choules on one of the ship's landing craft.Source:Supplied

Evacuees from Mallacoota disembark at HMAS Creburus after travelling on HMAS Choules from Mallacoota. Picture: The AustralianSource:News Corp Australia

Assumptions that aircraft are the answer to fighting wildfires went up in smoke within 24 hours, when it became clear that pilots could not operate safely in smoke so thick that satellites could not even relay accurate pictures of the fires. A point tragically underlined this week by the air crash killing three Americans who crossed the world to help us.

Genoa farmer Rob De Geus bought a small bulldozer 20 years ago sure he could use it to make the district safer. He is bemused that his offers to run firebreaks around the potentially-lethal State Forests adjoining his farm have been declined. But he has cleared firebreaks on private property.

De Geus grew up at Genoa. Before taking up farming full-time he worked for the Forests Commission, fighting fires in summer and maintaining access tracks and machinery the rest of the year.

SES volunteer Alex Ziolkowski cuts up fallen trees on the Genoa-Mallacoota road, the only road out of town. Picture: David CairdSource:News Corp Australia

Scorched earth that goes on for kilometres near Genoa. Picture: David CairdSource:News Corp Australia

At 63, he has a broad practical knowledge of the bush, machinery, firefighting and changing fashions in forest management. He is also a keen environmentalist, something that might surprise extremists on both sides of a debate often lazily represented as loonie Greens versus raging Rednecks.

Because of his experience and calmness, De Geus has been a regular delegate at meetings to discuss bushfire risk and preparedness. He has pointed out what he and concerned citizens have seen as the growing threat to East Gippsland, not to mention forest country in the rest of Victoria and southern NSW.

Former Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley. Picture: Hamish BlairSource:News Corp Australia

In 2006, he heard the then deputy chief of the CFA, Craig Lapsley, address a meeting about fire danger at Cann River. Lapsley inspected the fallen branches and undergrowth on the forest floor but stated fuel reduction burns were not needed because “because science is on our side” and would prevent disastrous fires. He told De Geus fires would in future be controlled from the air.

At the time, De Geus and others present wondered if vested aviation industry interests had lobbied decision makers by exploiting the desire for a “Green” solution to fires, appeasing city voters and ducking the political pain of imposing fuel reduction burns and cutting back trees near settlements.

De Geus accepts that educated outsiders might dismiss him (and others) “as some deadbeat farmer” but hasn’t let that stop him from warning against the dangers of neglecting the bush.

At a meeting at Bairnsdale CFA headquarters in 2016, he described Mallacoota as “a sitting duck” for a hot fire that could “cremate” the town.

North Warrandyte CFA Strike Team captured scenes from Mallacoota, Victoria. Picture: CFA/Alex Coppel.Source:News Corp Australia

Aftermath of fires that tore through Mallacoota. Picture: CFA/Alex CoppelSource:News Corp Australia

This drew incredulous looks and comments from some. One of the critics, a bushfire consultant named Helen Bull, challenged his prediction, insisting Mallacoota would “never burn” because it is on the coast and so has a prevailing easterly breeze.

De Geus said it would take only an unusual weather pattern to create an apocalyptic wildfire. “All we need is for a fire to start in the Wingan national park and it will be on.”

Less than four years later, his prediction has come true. But De Geus and his neighbours in Genoa made sure they did not become casualties of rigid forest management fashions.

In May 2017, De Geus saw Parks Victoria workers attempting to light fuel reduction fires near Mallacoota. Because they were in damp gullies, the fires would not catch. De Geus lit fires on his own bush block the same week, choosing high ground that was drier. It was the ideal “cool burn”, removing leaves and debris between tree trunks without harming trees or wildlife.

Crews monitor fires and begin back burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance. Picture: GettySource:Getty Images

The department sent a helicopter to buzz his property. It circled four times, spooking his cattle, which ran through fences. He called to complain, and invited local Parks Victoria head ranger, the splendidly-named Darryl Burns, to visit to discuss the fact his harmless fire had trickled overnight into the state forest.

Burns made a show of sending out tankers and machinery to “control” a fire that was already petering out. While De Geus’s wife Dot made coffee for the visitor, Burns warned the farmer he would “make an example” of him.

De Geus subsequently received a warning letter threatening him with a $7000 fine, in default six months jail.

Three dry summers have tilted the argument in his favour. When the fire raced towards Mallacoota from the Wingan forest after Christmas, it was Darryl Burns who had to warn terrified tourists about the potentially-fatal wind change that would bring “a big fire ... in the middle of the night.”

Meanwhile, at Genoa and Gipsy Point, people fended for themselves. As for the patch of private bush that De Geus had quietly burned off in 2017? It was the main reason his neighbours weren’t burned out by the Parks Victoria wildfire.

The result, sadly, is that the De Geus farm “has more green trees per hectare than the entire Croajingolong National Park” — which has countless millions of dead or dying trees. And animals.

It is, says De Geus, a hell of a way to be proven right.

Meanwhile, best rain to fall in East Gippsland after a three-year drought has shot seeds, spreading a green tinge across burned paddocks, open ground and the privately-owned bush where reduction burns halted wildfire.

The green shoots on the burned areas are longer and stronger than on the unburned paddocks. Already, nature is repairing herself.

Originally published asUnsung heroes of the East Gippsland fires

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