Long, long weekend amid flames

He started on Friday at the Wahroonga tip and moved with fires through Beacon Hill and Duffy’s Forest.

“You work until you’ve had it or until the captain advises if there’s someone to relieve you,” he said. “And if it’s really bad, you just stay on.”

Fires crossing the expressway near the Hawkesbury River on October 4, 1971.

Fires crossing the expressway near the Hawkesbury River on October 4, 1971.Credit:Staff photographer

He said that for him the worst time had been on Friday night when flame had jumped the tanker and they had to start hosing it and moving out very quickly. “It frightened hell out of me — I didn’t have my overalls on at the time and my arms got singed.”

He was now wearing water-soaked overalls, a handkerchief at the neck and a safety helmet.

The Ku-ring-gai tanker, only three months old, was being given a really rough breaking-in. It had been on the job continuously since Friday with only short breaks for refuelling.

Exhausted, firefighter John Gill takes a break. October 4, 1971.

Exhausted, firefighter John Gill takes a break. October 4, 1971.Credit:Robert Pearce

And some of the crew hadn’t been home since Saturday. The 23 of them include a golf course manager (that’s the captain, Keith Hammond), a company director, a dog kennel proprietor, a commercial diver, a public relations man, university students, a book binder and an artist with J. Walter Thompson.

Sitting on the back of their tanker yesterday eating a 3 o’clock lunch of steak, mashed potato and peas, it was obvious they had become a close-knit team. The food had been supplied by cheerful members of the Police Rescue Canteen who ladled it out saying, “All care but no responsibility.”

Some of the crew wanted to know who had won the Bathurst 500, who had won The Metropolitan and what day was it?

Most of them had planned to spend their long weekend very differently.

Keith Hammond had driven his family 200 miles to Tea Gardens on Friday when a neighbour phoned to say his house at North Turramurra was in danger. He had a cup of tea, drove straight back and had been on the job pretty much ever since.

Andrew Rae, a professional diver, was on his way to Jervis Bay when he decided he had better come back.

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His worst moments came on Sunday night.

“I was on the nozzle and suddenly the fire was everywhere and I couldn’t see my hand—much less anyone else,” he said. “I thought I was gone.”

The crew have had one casualty. Michael Kennedy fell down a cliff on Sunday night and hurt his back. He was last seen being picked up by the Civil Defence in an ambulance and being taken to hospital.


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