This history is dedicated to the Winmalee Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade family.
The bush fire brigade movement has, since its inception, been dependent for its existence on men and women with a deep sense of community and dedication. No greater dedication is given than that given by the wives and children of the men who fight fires. Be it through the regular sacrifice of a father’s company or the quiet devotion of women preparing food or tucking the weary into bed in the middle of the day.
The Winmalee Volunteer Bushfire Brigade was set up at a meeting attended by 15 North Springwood residents on September 7, 1962, and was known as the North Springwood Bushfire Brigade. One of the major supporters for the establishment of the brigade was its inaugural captain, Lin Paish. Up to this time bushfire fighting operations were disjointed and uncoordinated and most fires were attacked by small groups aiming to protect their own immediate area. In the 1950’s North Springwood’s bushfire protection consisted of a “hosebox post” situated on the corner of Hawkesbury Road and Singles Ridge Road adjacent to Stan Gatehouse’s home. It contained some lengths of canvas hose, a standpipe and a hose nozzle. This was provided by the NSW Board of Fire Commissioners who at that time considered that bushfire emergencies could best be looked after by their town based fire engine and volunteer crews plus hosebox posts. Fortunately there were many whose view differed from those of the Board of Fire Commissioners and one of them was Reg Wheatley whose truck was often pressed into service carrying a 200 gallon square ship’s tank, a small motor pump, several lengths of canvas hose and as many blokes as could fit on the truck tray. With the formation of bushfire brigades under the control of the Blue Mountains City Council in towns throughout the mountains, North Springwood residents began to breathe a little easier when a brigade was formed in their area.
At a meeting on September 14, 1962, Frank Martin was the first elected captain, a position he held for almost seven years. For the first 12 months of its existence the brigade had to use Frank’s utility as its principal vehicle until it acquired a Chevrolet four wheel drive ‘blitz’ tanker in August 1963. This unit served with the brigade until 1974.
Brigade headquarters were set up in the Progress Association Hall in Hawkesbury Road. Early in the brigade’s history, funding was acquired through Council and a tender shed was built along side the hall. It was from this shed and the adjoining hall that operations were controlled in the 1976 wildfire. The area of the brigade’s responsibility was established as all that land within the boundaries of the Blue Mountains City Council area north of Patterson Road, Springwood. The brigade performed similar functions to those carried out today – fire fighting, hazard reduction, maintenance and fund raising.
The brigade was first involved in actual fire suppression in the 1965 fire season, when it attended fires in the Glenbrook area. The brigade was next in action against a bushfire in 1967 after a fire had started in Springwood Creek. This fire, which was the brigade’s first local “job”, jumped the highway and railway line near Springwoods eastern rail under pass, before burning its way into Birdwood Gully where it was brought under control.
In 1968 the Blue Mountains were struck by the most disastrous wildfire since 1957. The fire started in October out of the southern extension of a fire at Bilpin and crossed the Grose River to the outskirts of North Springwood (Winmalee) on October 28. During the next fortnight, the fire slowly burned in a south-westerly direction and on November 14 made a run across the Nepean River north of Castlereagh and burned almost to the Penrith-Windsor road. The western edge of the fire in the Grose continued to burn slowly in a south-westerly direction until November 28, when after burning out a huge tract of land north of the Great Western Highway, the fire made a final run out of Linden Creek, crossing the highway at Faulconbridge at 9 a.m. The fire wasn’t stopped until 3 p.m. on that day after it had reached lightly timbered country on the eastern side of the Penrith-Wallacia road.
The fire claimed the lives of three volunteer firemen, razed more than 70 houses to the ground and destroyed 9,300 hectares of bushland. North Springwood Brigade (Winmalee) played its part in fighting the fire with both volunteer firemen and equipment.
In June 1969, Phil Koperberg was elected brigade captain after the resignation of Frank Martin. Later that year the brigade helped out at a fire at Wentworth Falls which lasted a day and a half and destroyed three homes. Phil Koperberg had been captain for only 14 months when he resigned to take up the position of Blue Mountains Fire Control Officer, a job that he performed with distinction until December 1982.
Jim Hoppitt was elected captain and he served until January 1974. During this period the brigade received the first International C1300 tanker in the Mountains. This tanker was fitted with a 450 gallon water tank, two 250 ft hose reels and hose and a Forrester G2 pump.
In August 1970, the brigade assisted Yarramundi Brigade (Hawkesbury Shire) in fighting a fire in the Lynch’s Creek area. As this was the third deliberately lit fire in the area that day, Yarramundi were very happy to see North Springwood Brigade arrive with equipment and manpower.
In September 1972 the brigade changed its name to Winmalee-Yellow Rock Bushfire Brigade – the Yellow Rock part was later dropped. The history of the Winmalee Volunteer Bushfire Brigade wouldn’t be complete without mention of the volunteer unit set up by St. Columba’s College in Hawkesbury Road. This unit was established in 1972 and manned by the trainee priests. A very close association developed between the college and the Winmalee Brigade, however, the college closed down as a seminary in 1977 and with it the life of the college volunteer unit ended. A close association is still kept with the college, now a high school, and a plaque on the current tender’s light unit (won by the college at a field day) remembers the college’s participation in volunteer bushfire fighting operations. The attendance at the 2lst celebrations by Father John Cox, the former College brigade captain, also reflects that close association.
Jim Hoppitt resigned in January 1974 and Dave Hunt was elected captain. Dave led the brigade for 18 months, during which time the activities of the brigade took a new lease of life, after a period when residents’ support had dropped off.
In June 1975 Ron Smith was elected captain and with an influx of new members, brigade activities were reorganised. Crews were formed and plans made for the building of a new tanker station. In September 1975 the brigade took possession of its current tender – a Bedford 4 by 4 with an 850 gallon water tank.
In December 1976, the Winmalee area was hit by a wildfire, which lasted five days. The fire began in the Hawkesbury Lookout area and spread very quickly to Yellow Rock Lookout, Singles Ridge Road, Long Angle Gully and Patterson Road. In the same period, another fire threatened Winmalee from the northwest and during the rest of December, the brigade attended fires throughout the Mountains.
In April 1977, the brigade left its Progress Association headquarters and moved into its present Hawkesbury Road tanker station just beyond White Cross corner. Since then several additions have been made and the Brigades current strength is two modern tankers, a village pumper and a personnel carrier.
In December 1977, the Blue Mountains were struck by a series of wildfires, the intensity of which had not been seen since 1968. The brigade attended fires at Glenbrook, Sun Valley, Glenbrook National Park, Hassan’s Wall, Lithgow and Katoomba. Then the situation worsened on December 16 when two separate fires broke out – one at Lawson and one in Tablelands Road, Wentworth Falls. Helped by bad weather conditions, both fires spread rapidly, the Tablelands Road fire moving to the banks of the Nepean River; and the Lawson fire coming down the Mountains through Faulconbridge then stopped by firebreaks at St. Columba’s college in Hawkesbury Road. This fire was brought under control mainly due to hazard reduction work in the Thompson/Linksview Avenues area carried out by the Winmalee Brigade. More than 60 members of the Winmalee Brigade were in involved in fighting the fires for nearly a week, working on a 24 hour rotating shift system.
The next 18 months saw the brigade concentrating on hazard reduction and work on the new station, with fire activity being limited. However, the brigade’s tradition of “helping out” was very much to the fore. The brigade helped fight fires at Mittagong and Liverpool in early 1978.
In August 1978, Ron Smith resigned as captain and John Barrett was elected in his place. In that month, the brigade received a new Godiva pump driven by a VW 1600 cc industrial motor, capable of pumping 500 gallons a minute, a new long wheel base personnel carrier and the contract for the building of the brigade’s kitchen and meeting hall was signed.
Work continued on the extensions which added a kitchen and meeting hall area to the tender station. The cost for these extensions was in the region of $12,000 and funds were provided by BMCC, Apex and fund raising activities of brigade members. June 1979 saw the official opening of the station and extensions by Mr. P.C. Koperberg. The ceremony was well attended by members and dignitaries including the now Minister Mr. Peter Anderson.
December l979 saw our new extensions put to the test. At this time the brigade was in involved in a fire at Martindale Hill, above the Grose River, where two members suffered serious rope burns. The removal of personnel for Martindale was delayed by the outbreak of a fire in the gully between Hawkesbury and Singles Ridge Roads behind the Greek Monastery. The fire lasted a week and was immediately followed by the brigade’s heavy commitment to fighting fires at Mt’s Wilson, Irvine and Tomah. Great strains were placed on our resources during this month with two crews regularly being utilised at one time. However good forward planning and well organised crews helped Winmalee maintain a maximum effort, both in the field and at the station.
So that members didn’t become too bored with all their spare time the brigade was allocated an ex RAAF Thornycroft. This tender was completely rebuilt and reconditioned during the next 8 months.
Following the disastrous fires of 1979 the brigade increased its membership again and training of the many new members began in earnest. Part of this program was a substantial hazard reduction in the Grotto area off the White Cross Estate. This land is part of the St. Columba’s land holding.
The 1980/81 fire season was virtually fire free. However a serious road accident at Hawkesbury lookout and a car fire at Winmalee store kept the brigade on its toes. Work continued on the Thornycroft tanker and Doug Allen, who had been elected captain in 1980, left the Winmalee community and Garry Walsh was elected captain.
During the very competitive field day in September 1981 the brigade was called in to assist the S.E.S. to rectify substantial wind storm damage, and later in that month, to assist the N.S.W. Police in a protracted search for a light plane lost in the Barrington tops region.
The brigade has been called upon at various times to respond to some peculiar tasks. One such request came from Telecom on the night of 25th November 1981 when Winmalee received all of its yearly rainfall in one night. The brigade pumped out the telephone exchange for six hours much to the gratitude of the local exchange supervisor.
Luckily the 1981/82 fire season was also almost fire free, except for very minor occurrences at Hawkesbury lookout and Yandina Avenue. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the following year, when the season started very early due to the long drought.
August 1982 saw fires in Lochinvar Avenue and a major fire in Sun Valley. Then, in September, a fire at Oberon, followed by a series of total ban days leading up to the tragic fire that ignited on Thursday, November 25, 1982. This started a chain of events which culminated in the Mountains being alight from Blackheath to Faulconbridge along the Grose Valley.
To avoid the possible massive loss of property and lives, a daring and ambitious plan was devised using the existing fire trails and construction of new ones from which brigades could backburn. The potential of this fire to ravage the mountain townships was the greatest this century. The brigade logged a massive 1400 man-hours in assisting in the successful suppression of this blaze.
During this fire season the brigade was involved in three remote area fires – Bindook, Wolgan Valley and Nebo Ridge.
The last fire attended in the 1982/83 season was a major outbreak at Glenbrook which raced down Glenbrook Gorge and jumped the Nepean River. Although this fire only lasted 48 hours, it, like most fires on the urban fringes of mountain towns involved major property protection. Finally the long awaited rains came and brigade members took a well earned rest.
At the AGM of 1983 Garry Walsh reluctantly declined nomination for captain because of family commitments in stereo, and Don Nott was elected.
September 1983, the brigade mainly through the generosity of local residents purchased ute a new Toyota long wheelbase. The mini tanker was constructed under the direction of hard working brigade member Lee Holder and a band of very willing assistants.
Over the years the brigade has attended fires at Baulkham Hills, Sutherland, Hornsby and Warringah Shires. The Mount Kaputar Range, near Narrabri and Wentworth on the N.S.W./S.A. border. To date, Winmalee Volunteer Bushfire Brigade has distinguished itself on many occasions. The record of the brigade can be directly attributed to the professional approach and dedication of the officers and members both past and present, and the handing down traditional fire fighting techniques from old to young.