‘Wake-up call’: Lessons from destructive Lowmead fire
AS Lowmead Rural Fire Brigade's first officer Dale Gerstenberg turned onto Lowmead Rd on December 15 last year in the station's 51 fire truck, he knew they "were going to be in trouble".
He wasn't to know at the time that the aggressive Mt Maria blaze would reach Lowmead, eventually consuming three homes, and take more than a week and the help of over 25 appliances including fire trucks, control centres, air support, water bombers, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to bring under control.
With Kath Russell - "a very, very good firefighter" - Mr Gerstenberg was initially responding to calls from Rosedale Fire Brigade to help with a fire at Mt Maria.
"We responded about 1.15pm, and there was a lot of black smoke between Tablelands Rd and Round Hill Rd," Mr Gerstenberg said.
"You can tell by the colour of the smoke that it's bad.
"We were on Kilpatrick Rd, and the fire was travelling due south-west at 10km/h.
"10km doesn't sound fast, but it's a walking pace. And it had been about 12 years since that area had burnt. It was dry and it was in prime condition to burn."
Mr Gerstenberg's fire truck was carrying 1500 litres of water, and he immediately warned other firefighters that it was going to be a "major issue".
The team at Lowmead had still been in the thick of patrolling fires at Logan Rd, Colosseum and Clarke's Rd, which were burnt out but hot spots remained, when they received the help call for Mt Maria.
Exhausted staff were working 12-14-hour shifts and fatigue management was being employed.
Mr Gerstenberg said one of the initial problems when arriving at a fire was working out how to access it.
"You can't fight a fire if you can't get into it. We were up on Tablelands Rd and we could see how fast it was travelling," he said.
"And we could tell from communicating with each other that it was travelling in three different directions."
A fire, he said, when travelling uphill doubled in speed.
"We knew it was going to increase in size. We knew we were going to need help and quickly," he said.
"And we knew we'd need aerial help once we saw the sheer size of the plume of smoke."
Firefighters could see smoke behind driveways, and they knew people's homes were in behind.
"You know there's people's lives involved," he said.
The weather wasn't in favour of the firefighters who at night-time felt as if they were making progress and by day break battled low humidity and soaring temperatures.
"It took a week for it to get to Lowmead. There were a couple of really bad days," he said. "It steered in north and jumped Lowmead Rd, jumped the railway lines and started impacting Lowmead township itself."
Evacuation orders were put in place as the fire leapt containment lines - other brigades were already helping along with strike teams from Brisbane.
Landowners helped with backburning along the western side between Lowmead and the highway.
"One of the hardest things was trying to get water - especially when it was so low - and we were bringing tankers in from Gladstone and Agnes Water," he said.
Mr Gerstenberg said controlling a fire relied on breaking the triangle of oxygen, fuel and ignition.
Backburning, as long as the conditions prevailed, was essential - but also dangerous.
"I believe this fire was a wake-up call for everyone. It was never a huge topic," Mr Gerstenberg said. "Among firefighters it was, but among the residential population it wasn't, and this season alone has brought it to the forefront.
"As firefighters, we have lost lives this season."
Mr Gerstenberg - who also works in construction - said he was now installing water points in dams on properties he worked at, and advising anyone else to do the same.
"And going back two or three years, I'd never have been doing that," he said.
"There were a lot of bad circumstances coming into this season with drought and lack of water. The community is now well aware of how quickly fires can turn nasty."
Plans are now in place for the Lowmead Fire Brigade shed to be rebuilt - Mr Gerstenberg is starting work on it next week - and the old shed will be turned into a facility for open days and community information.