Our Community Fire Unit

Right now in Australia, we are experiencing a horrible start to the summer bushfire season.

In NSW alone, there are 100 active bush and grass fires of which 60 remain uncontained (as at 7 December 2019). With a forecast of a dry, hot summer, this situation will only get worse.

In January 2003, bushfire severely impacted Canberra. Lightning strikes started several fires in forested ranges to the west of the city. Within ten days, those fires joined to form a front some 40km long that directly impacted the western edge of Canberra’s urban areas.

Conditions were brutally perfect for the fire on Saturday, 18 January, with the temperature about 40 degrees Celcius, north-westerly winds at around 80kmh, and very low humidity. The impact was swift and devastating. An extremely rare fire tornado was recorded on video.

Four lives were lost in the fire. Almost 500 homes were destroyed.

Wikipedia

The fallout from the disaster is well documented. There were several independent, coronial, and parliamentary inquiries. A Bushfire Recovery Taskforce was established.


Community Fire Units

Following the fires, the ACT Government decided to establish Community Fire Units (CFUs) that would assist fire fighting authorities in preparing for impending fire threats. The CFU program is modelled on that of NSW Fire and Rescue, which maintains 600 CFUs, operated by more than 7,000 volunteer members, across metropolitan and regional NSW.

Following a successful trial of eight units, the program has now expanded to 50 CFUs in high risk or bushfire prone areas across Canberra. Those 50 unit comprise around 850 volunteer members.

CFU volunteers are members of the ACT Fire & Rescue (ACTF&R) organisation and take direction from their officers, but they do not directly fight fires. That job remains the responsibility of ACTF&R and the ACT Rural Fire Service.

CFU members are trained and equipped by ACTF&R to protect their homes during a bushfire until fire fighters arrive. Typically, CFU members utilise basic fire fighting equipment to prepare their properties and surrounding areas to prevent a bushfire from spreading from farmland or bushland into the urban fringe. A unit would concentrate on dampening down properties, focussing on back fences and yards.

Each CFU member is provided with a full personal protective equipment kit, which includes a fire proof uniform, boots, gloves, helmet and goggles.

ACTF&R provides and maintains a trailer for each unit, which is equipped with standpipes, hoses, fittings, a pump, and safety equipment such as signs and traffic cones.


CFU duties

At the commencement of the fire season, a CFU spends some time promoting the work of the unit, provides information to residents on being prepared for fire, and accurately records all resident or occupant information.

The key duty during a fire is preparing and protecting homes from spot fires or ember attack until the arrival of fire fighters.

Other tasks, at the direction of ACTF&R, include mopping up and extinguishing spot fires in the area to allow fire fighters to move to active fire fronts.


CFU 38

Our CFU area comprises all homes in Dungowan Street, Mataranka Street and Elsey Street in Hawker in the ACT. This part of Hawker is susceptible to fire from the west, south-west and north-west, with leasehold farmland to the south-west, and nature reserve to the south-east of the suburb.

The image below, snipped from an ACTF&R map, shows CFU38 with a pink boundary.

The image below, clipped from Google Maps, shows the broader area to the west of Belconnen in the ACT. The red star indicates our suburb of Hawker. In the 2003 bushfire, everything to the west of the red line was burnt. The fire was driven by 80 kmh north-westerly winds. A wind change to the west or south-west would have been a disaster for our part of town. The fire simply roared across the sparsely wooded country.


Training schedule

CFU 38 undertakes eight to ten training sessions during the summer fire season.

The first session includes the clean out and flushing of all hydrants. This also provides a refresher on the use of UHF radios.

Multiple sessions then focus on basic and advanced hydrant, hose and pump skills and drills. All members must be able to ship a standpipe, deploy and correctly use hoses, practice branch use, and install a breach. The small pump can be used to take advantage of static water sources such as swimming pools, should mains water be at low pressure or unavailable.

The unit practices emergency activations, with particular fire conditions scenarios. A communications tree ensures all members are informed about training and activations.

Advanced training sessions include working collaboratively with ACTF&R and the Rural Fire Service. Refilling pumpers and tankers is an important unit task.

Initial training sessions for volunteer members are undertaken at the ACTF&R headquarters. On site training can be overseen by CFU coordinators, or under the supervision of ACTF&R pumper unit officers.


Training session – basic hose drills

Below, a quick snap of the CFU38 trailer, at its host residence in Dungowan Street.

To start the training session, the trailer is taken to the practice site (this time, in Elsey Street), and quickly unpacked. Members sign in on the clipboard and put their magnetic name tag across to the ‘available’ list.

The trailer has standpipes, hoses, rake-hoes, water backpacks, and various tools. The traffic cones have already been deployed. The black tackle box just on the right houses the set of UHF radios.

A member ships a standpipe.

Standpipe ready, and hose connected.

The trailer also carries a set of ramps so that charged lines (hoses full of high pressure water) don’t get driven on.

The next couple of photos show the walkway between houses that allows people to access the walking/cycling/equestrian track that runs behind the houses. During the 2003 fires, many homes deep in the suburbs affected were lost due to fire quickly burning along similar walkways.

Reverse view, looking down into the suburb.

The view at the end of the walkway. The trail easement is 40-50m wide, and is routinely mowed by the ACT Government.

The photo below was taken while standing in the trail easement, next to the fence that borders the leasehold grazing property. Further to the west is the Brindabella range, with Mt Coree, the ‘bump’ in the middle. There is a fire observation tower on Mt Coree. The 2003 fires came as close as the low grassy hills in the middle ground.

A volunteer bowls a hose.

Two bowled hoses are joined, and a branch (nozzle) attached. A team of three operates a hose line; one at the branch, one supporting them directly behind and one at the standpipe. The support person helps brace the person operating the hose. There is enough pressure to knock a person over! The support person also communicates with the person at the standpipe, calling for water on or off. UHF radios are used, or hand signals if there is a line of sight.

Dampening down commences.

The team works its way back down the walkway. The ground is thoroughly soaked.

Concurrently, a second team runs a line into the backyard adjacent to the walkway, in order to begin dampening the rear of the property.

Basic hose drill complete, it is time to pack up. Below, a member drains a hose prior to rolling it up.

Hose rolling is an art form!

Rolling complete and hose tied up.

The session ends with a debrief, and all gear is packed into the trailer. Every member in attendance is accounted for, and all sign out. The trailer is returned to its host yard.


Thank you for taking the time to read about our Community Fire Unit. These amazing volunteers do an excellent job and assist greatly in our city’s preparation for bushfire. Hopefully we will not see fires directly impact us in Canberra this summer. Or any summer!

Anthony Overs
Canberra Australia

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