Bill Bubb, an Anglesea member for 49 years, explains the thinking. “Slow down and look at the smoke. Is the fire building? What is the fuel loading? What is the colour of the smoke? Is it where the burns have been done? What sort of bush is it in? A messmate fire runs faster than a blue ash fire. Where is it going to run to? The fire will tell you everything it’s going to do.
“We got it off the forestry people and we’ve done it for years. I put fire behaviour at the top of the tree. It’s more important than map reading.”
This observation method works for Anglesea because the brigade has established ways to pass local knowledge on to the next generation: it works because brigade members have been taught to critically interpret what they are seeing. Without that, it’s all just smoke and hot air.
Bill Bubb is the primary source of much of this Anglesea local knowledge and he’s pure bush pedigree. “I’ve lived in Anglesea all my life,” says Bill. “There was a fire when I was three weeks old and I was taken to the beach and dug into the wet sand.
“I got dumped with my grandfather and taken into the bush. He taught me the leaf test. Light a leaf and if it burns down real quick it means the moisture is really low.
“Us kids would ride our bikes into the bush. If the fire siren sounded to get the crews to come to the station, we were to come home.
“The bush was part of us. There aren’t too many gullies I haven’t been into.”
It’s in these gullies that Bill now passes on his local knowledge. “We charge the truck battery by testing out the different roads,” he explains. “It’s where we drill into them that you never drain the trucks. We never leave a fire without a quarter of water still in our truck, then we go to get water. Most of our brigade members are sea changers so this is all new to them.”
Speaking of sea change, a local like Bill knows exactly what a wind change looks like as it comes along with coast when a fire is running. “You see the fog encroaching and the cloud moves in a different direction to the smoke which will drift to the east. You see the ripple of the white caps coming. Humidity drops and the flame becomes brighter.
“We run our fires on 15 minute cycles. Where will this be in 15 minutes? We mentally plot it up. Each of our trucks has sector points assigned in town and we designate people to go to those sectors.”
Anglesea is one of the most burnt out towns in Victoria including the loss of 132 houses on Ash Wednesday in 1983 when Bill Bubb was captain of the fire brigade. “We were all screaming for trucks but no could reach us,” says Bill. “What‘s really stayed with me is the explosive power.”
Intv with Bill on Channel 7 on Ash Wednesday below:
“When I’m on strike team, I always look for an old timer who‘s a local. In the New South Wales fires, I looked for forest officers. They’ve observed fire over time. I want to hear their local knowledge. If you don’t use it, you’re in trouble.”
Bill is currently Deputy Group Officer of the Coastal Group and a Level 3 incident controller. “But I’m more use in the bush than behind a computer,” he insists. “I’ve got to smell the smoke.”
Talk about local knowledge on the CFA Connect forum
Many thanks to Peter Cecil for sharing photos from the Cecil family collection. We do not know the names of the photographers of many of these photos. If you are one of the photographer, please contact us at CFA Connect and we will gladly acknowledge you.