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Heavy plant put to work in favourable conditions

Cutting a containment line around the Dunns Road Fire.

“We have more bulldozers, graders and other heavy plant than fire trucks out there,” said NSW Rural Fire Service Public Liaison Officer Bradley Stewart to a crowded town hall meeting in Lacmalac last week.

“One hundred and twenty pieces of heavy plant have been to the fire.”

Mr Stewart was explaining the logistics of the fire fight to local residents, who asked why more wasn’t being done by air.

“You can’t put a fire out from the air,” explained Mr Stewart, “You need boots on the ground.”

Water and retardant bombing assists ground crews to fight the fire, but they only extinguish flames on the top of objects like trees or buildings. The fire itself is not out until there’s a fire fighter or a piece of equipment physically turning over logs to extinguish the burn.

Jock Mason, of Mason’s Bulldozing, said he has close to 21 years of experience in bulldozers and about 20 years experience fighting fires with bulldozers.

He’s just one contractor among many. He’s never seen anything like this fire.

“Without a doubt. I think our generation hasn’t seen anything of this scale before.”

Mr Mason has been talking with plant operators who’ve come from across the state to help with the Dunns Road fire and the other fires which it has now consumed.

“Normally, 10 dozers is a big fire, and that’s a lot of plant on a fire,” said Mr Mason.

“They’ve sourced a massive amount of plant. But on the bad days, there’s just nothing we can do. On the good days, we can keep it in control and keep it within containment lines.”

Heavy plant operators have been able to push containment lines around the Snowy Valleys LGA on those ‘good days’ when the temperatures are a little cooler and the winds are a little more still, but those days have been punctuated by ‘severe’ and almost ‘catastrophic’ conditions.

“We’ve had three bad days in a two week period,” remembered Mr Mason.

“There was the first day, when it got started, then the following Saturday, then the following Friday.

“On those days, you don’t have any effect on it.”

On that first day, December 28, the Dunns Road fire was started by lightning. On the following Monday, the Dunns Road fire unexpectedly ran 100kms overnight; at the same time, the Green Valley fire was started by lightning and ran 80kms.

The fire jumped Blowering Dam and ran into the national parks, where it destroyed historic huts and other buildings, as well as the Selwyn Snow Resort.

Mr Mason says the heavy plant operators are putting in fire breaks up to 20 metres wide to protect vital assets, like homes, but “it was a kilometre wide where it jumped the dam. If it can jump a kilometre over the dam, there’s not much you can do.

“That’s the nature of this fire.”

Aside from the severe and catastrophic days, Mr Mason says a 6m wide fire break (one dozer blade) can usually stop a fire, with a second blade pushed through to form a containment line.

“We know full well that’s only going to hold it when conditions are on our side,” said Mr Mason.

“I think the weather is going to be the deciding factor and it was always going to be.”

Mr Mason, like everyone across the Snowy Valleys LGA, was looking forward to a wet change forecasted for the end of this week. Heavy plant operators, including resources called in from the Australian Defence Force, are making the most of any cooler, wetter weather.

Containment lines are growing, particularly focused around populated areas and pine plantation area, but the fire is still burning uncontained in the national park towards the south eastern edge of the fire. There’s little that can be done in that area amid difficult terrain which prevents access for fire crews and heavy plant.

Though they’re tired, there’s still a lot of work for firefighters and heavy plant operators. The cooler weather will allow them to get more work done, with calmer and more predictable fire activity.

“The single biggest thing,” stressed Mr Mason, “Is the firefighters. They are the real heroes out there.

“It’s been absolutely humbling to all us plant operators. They just keep coming out there, day after night, night after day.

“What an amazing thing they all do and that they all give up, and how hard they all work, all the volunteers, just to give back to the community. They’re all tired, they all want to go home, but they keep turning up.

“We owe a massive debt of gratitude to them for what they’ve done for us.”

Dunns Road Fire response by the numbers

Plant and equipment: 224

115 pieces of heavy plant still in the field

28 fire trucks from the NSW Rural Fire Service

9 fire trucks from Fire and Rescue NSW

18 fire trucks from National Parks

43 fire trucks from Forestry NSW

2 fire trucks from the ACT Rural Fire Service

8 aircraft with the NSW RFS (including contractors)

1 aircraft from Forestry NSW

Personnel: 222+

60 from the NSW RFS

36 from National Parks

86 from Forestry NSW

40+ from Fire and Rescue NSW