Cockatoo is a small village nestled into the southern foothills of the Dandenong Ranges were the suburbs meets the bush. Narrow gravel roads and modest fibro homes characterised the settlement.
The Cockatoo fire began late afternoon at 7.28 pm on Ash Wednesday 16 February 1983, about four hours after the blaze at Belgrave South. It was reported to the Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) office at Kallista by Jon Gwilt in the Briarty’s Hill firetower who could see smoke south of Macclesfield.
The fire was believed to been deliberately lit in at least two places in the Wright State forest near the Puffing Billy train line easement.
A professional fireman from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was detained by the CFA Captain and handed over to Police. He was charged with arson but later found not guilty in the Supreme Court.
At the time of reporting of the fire many local CFA fire trucks from the Dandenong Ranges and Pakenham Groups had been called away to the earlier fires burning at Belgrave South and Upper Beaconsfield.
The main Cockatoo CFA tanker had gone to Upper Beaconsfield and the remaining crew around town only had the F100 Ute. They were led by local Captain Graham Simpson. The main tanker later returned.
The police helicopter swooped over town and many people evacuated when they saw the smoke plume billowing up from the Wright State forest.
Dorothy Griffin was later awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for assisting residents evacuate during the blaze.
Thankfully, the town had a mains water supply with diesel back-up pumps, and over a megalitre of water was used in the next 24 hours.
Forests Commission crews and tankers from nearby Gembrook and Olinda depots were also deployed to Belgrave South and Upper Beaconsfield. They were redirected to return immediately to Cockatoo and the Wright State forest which was within the Forests Commission’s Fire Protected Area (FPA).
Senior Gembrook overseer Bob Ferres took control of the FCV resources at Cockatoo. They arrived after 8.00 pm at Bailey Road to discover the two small fires had joined and were about 30 ha in size. The fire was spotting into private property in several locations.
Most of the bush hadn’t been fuel reduced for many years and the fire ran steadily under the influence of the northerly wind towards the Bailey Road – Majestic Road area.
They initially worked near the corner of Bailey and Paternoster Roads and were regularly kept informed by radio of the progress of the southwest wind change which was making its way across Victoria.
The District Forester from Kallista, Frank May, and Assistant Divisional Forester Harry Prewett went on a reconnaissance flight from Coldstream at 6.30 pm, with Bill Incoll from MFRS at Sherbrooke as their pilot. Frank was in contact with Bob Ferres by radio. They flew over the Belgrave, Upper Beaconsfield, Cockatoo, and later the Warburton fires, before returning around 8.40 pm for a briefing with the Divisional Forester Ken Harrop at Healesville.
The strong southwest wind change struck Cockatoo around 9.05 pm and the fire burnt back fiercely across the township at 9.10 pm. The Rate of Spread increased to 15 km/hr with long distance spotting and crown fires.
FCV crews rushed down Bailey Road under a hail of fire and a blizzard of burning embers. As they travelled towards Cockatoo, they picked up a man running along the road.
They also passed the CFA transit van from Nar Nar Goon engulfed in flames. The van was loaded of petrol and had been waiting for tankers needing to be refuelled when the wind changed. Aware that they were in immediate danger they tried to escape by driving through the smoke and flames, but the van overturned. The driver, Ranald Webster escaped with horrific burns to 80% of his body, while his CFA colleague, Eddie “Dasha” Lowen died in the van.
Ranald Webster was sheltering beside the road when he was picked up by Bob in the FCV Slip-on-Unit and taken to the Cockatoo medical centre. Ranald was given little chance of survival by ambulance driver Lance Simmons, but after years painful rehabilitation, Ranald went back to his job driving buses and made it his mission to help others, working with burns sufferers.
Bob Ferres and “Butch” Reid also passed a CFA tanker and picked up another three passengers. The Olinda FCV tanker driven by Kevin Curran caught alight as well.
It’s fair to say, the FCV crews probably saved the lives of all these people. The decisions made by Bob Ferres on the day also undoubtedly saved his crews lives.
There were many other acts of unheralded heroism that frantic afternoon. Some spoke of miracles.
Bob Ferres and the FCV contingent regrouped on the Gembrook side of Cockatoo at about 9.30 pm and worked through the night to save houses and lives as flames engulfed the town.
At the time of regrouping, FCV crews comprised 21 firefighters, 1 small First Attack Dozer (FAD) and 6 tankers. The CFA had 40 men, 3 dozers and 10 tankers. Four additional dozers had been requested but were hard to find under the circumstances.
Two Forests Commission firefighters, Roger Frair and John (Charlie) Chaplin lost their homes in Cockatoo that night.
Charlie was with two others in the Olinda tip-truck fitted with a slip-on water tank. The headlights didn’t work so they scrounged some old electrical wire hanging on a fence and cobbled together a makeshift repair. The radio didn’t work either.
They were working to save houses on Knapton Avenue in Upper Beaconsfield and on their way to get more water when the wind change hit. The fire then swept over St Georges Road and Critchley Parker Junior Reserve where 12 firefighters from the CFA were killed.
The crew made their way to Charlie’s house in Cockatoo via the backroads because the road to Emerald was blocked by fire. His wife’s car was in the driveway and the Olinda Policeman, Jack Wicks, was standing out the front. Two people were lying dead in a nearby gutter. They were probably the young couple due to be married the following weekend, Anne-Maree James and John Merrick. Growing ever more anxious and not having a radio, they returned to the FCV Office at Kallista and were told that Charlie’s wife and daughter had safely evacuated to be with family at Carrum Downs.
Meanwhile, over 300 people, mainly women and children, sheltered at the Cockatoo kindergarten. Mrs Iola Tilley was their teacher. Local CFA crews surrounded the building at the height of the blaze. Many others gathered at the CFA shed causing traffic chaos.
The kindergarten remained a focus of the town after the fire and has now been converted into the Ash Wednesday Bushfire Education Centre.
The head fire ceased its run around midnight and was finally contained on the Gembrook – Lilydale Road but there were many spot fires sprayed out across the landscape.
One spot fire near Soldiers Road proved more difficult and was controlled a further 24 hours later by a small FCV crew from Sherbrooke and Kallista comprising 24 firefighters, 6 tankers and 1 quick fill pump.
Groups of school children were evacuated from Gilwell Scout Camp, Cooinda school camp and the FCV picnic ground at Kurth Kiln back to safety at Gembrook.
With the cooler weather on Thursday, backburning, blacking out and patrol continued along Beenak, Tonimbuk and Soldiers Roads for several days.
The media converged on the Cockatoo because of its proximity to Melbourne.
The Cockatoo fire #19 was one of the smallest in area of all the Ash Wednesday fires at 1,800 ha, but 6 people, including a CFA volunteer fireman lost their lives.
Over three hundred houses and seven major buildings were lost, and an estimated 1000 people were without their homes. 238 cattle and 97 sheep were also killed.
A large firebreak was cut near Second Avenue with SES bulldozers in the wake of the fire. Known as the “airstrip” it was 300 m wide and nearly a kilometre long but has now largely regrown.
State forest burnt in Fire #19 within the Fire Protected Area (FPA) included Wright State Forest, Soldiers Road near Kurth Kiln and Tonimbuk Road.
The fire was eventually declared safe by 6.00 pm on Day 12.
But months of relief… and years of recovery and rebuilding… followed.
This post should be read in conjunction with a story about the Belgrave / Upper Beaconsfield fire.