Events began with flash flooding around the towns of Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance and Paynesville, before the river started to flood and impact on rural areas around Bruthen. Brigades then had to deal with the overflow of Gippsland Lake.
“The efforts of the Paynesville and Lakes Entrance brigades were well rehearsed and organised – they’re used to dealing with flood events every five or so years. They know where to get prepared and put the sandbags and they just go and do it – they show great leadership.”
“The Princes Highway and all roads east of Orbost were closed – towns like Mallacoota, Cann River and Marlo had no power or access for several days. There’s still ongoing work to be done for many months – clearing tracks of trees that have fallen.”
Five cars found themselves isolated from their Bemm River homes due to fallen trees, including Bemm River Captain Russell Pardew. He and his son James (Third Lieutenant) spent five hours clearing the way home with chainsaws, chains and a tractor.
“We were on our way home from Orbost and kept coming across cars on the side of the road and trees across the road. We carry a chainsaw and axe in the back so we began clearing the road as we went,” said Russell.
“By the time we were 3 kilometres from home we had four cars in tow behind us and had already pulled five trees off the road.
“We chopped through another 10 trees and got to within 200 metres of the town before coming across a huge tree in the middle of the road with others hanging above it.
“James was cutting some of the branches off this thing and his wife Robin was on standby ready to hit him with a stick if the hanging tree moved at all. It’s an old trick we use in the bush because you can’t hear anything over the noise of the chainsaw and the wind – if someone gives you a whack you know to get out of the way.
“I was watching it all in the car headlights and saw the tree move. I yelled out and Robin gave him a whack – they both ran out of there. We were stuck out in the cold with trees crashing down around us and it wasn’t pleasant. The tree finally fell about 10 minutes later.
“James was cutting into the tree again when his saw jammed – nothing was going to shift it. He ran half a kilometre home to grab the tractor and a bigger chainsaw. It’s got a 30-inch bar on it – it’s one of the biggest ones you can get.
“Even with the rest of the brigade clearing from the other end it took an hour and a half to get through it and get everyone home. The road was blocked again the next morning – 38 more trees had come down overnight. If we’d left those four cars parked on the side of the road they’d be pancakes now.”
According to Russell’s weather station, the wind reached 103 kilometres an hour that night. The town was left isolated for three days without power or phones.
“We set up an incident management team at the fire station with a generator and deep freezer for residents to store their food. We’ve prepared as a community to be isolated in these sorts of situations – so we’ve got a plan for flood and fire and we make do with what we’ve got.
“Around 80 per cent of our farm went under and we’ll probably be feeling the effects of this incident for 12 months. It will be a few weeks work just to salvage the fences. But you learn to deal with it when you live on a flood plain – you put your shoes on each day and get on with it.”
The flood events really highlighted the strength of local command and control for Operations Manager Bryan Russell.
“Our brigades and groups have again showed themselves to be incredibly capable in setting up that initial local command and control getting things done themselves. They’ve been tested through fire, flood and now earthquakes – we’re just waiting on pestilence!”