By Oscar Perri
TRYING to extinguish the out-of-control bushfire that burnt its way through the French Island National Park on Saturday was a logistical nightmare, according to CFA volunteers
Although it is the state’s largest Island, French Island can only be accessed by plane or boat. And it has no mains power or water, and significantly restricted road access to much of the Island.
CFA’s Bass Coast Group Officer Damien O’Connor said the French Island Fire Brigade crews were alerted to the fire at around 2pm on Saturday.
Damien said they had serious worries that the fire would be getting out into private property and threatening homes and potentially lives, but all that was lost was one shed on a property near the edge of the National Park.
“The local crews did a great job protecting a house that was under serious threat, and were assisted well by the owner who had his own private ex-CFA tanker.”
Aside from help from non-CFA locals with private firefighting equipment, the local brigade knew they were looking at a couple of hours by themselves, before support could be provided.
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“The initial efforts of the French Island locals, be it CFA or private, was outstanding,” Damien said.
“Most of them are pretty prepared for anything… they’re used to the isolation over there and having to be self-reliant, but it was a real show of the Island’s community spirit.”
Even the tide was against them with shallow water making it impossible to move trucks and crew back and forth on the ferry when the water got too low at midnight.
Crews and vehicles from the Wonthaggi, San Remo, Bass, Kernot and Dalyston CFA brigades were sent across to the Island, while on the other side of Westernport Bay the Coast Guard were ferrying outer metro and Mornington Peninsula crews across to assist.
Aerial support was able to get to the Island first, with nine aircraft doing the bulk of the work to put out the wild fire in the mostly inaccessible National Park area.
Once the barge had been arranged to take them across, the CFA and DELWP Forest Fire management crews sent around a dozen vehicles over, but only two vehicles and 12 crew at a time were able to fit on the boat.
Fire breaks were established on the private properties near the fire by the CFA and contractors with machinery, which went a long way in stopping the blaze from breaking out.
The CFA believe the fire was started by a lightning strike deep in the National Park earlier in the week, before wind conditions on Saturday blew the fire out of control.
Damien says there are a lot of considerations involved in dealing with an emergency on French Island. Beyond the accessibility issues, the Island is home to important biodiversity habitats and also has significant Indigenous importance.
The koala population is one of the few in the country which are free from Chlamydia and other common diseases, and are a part of a significant breeding program.
“It is a very complicated place, people don’t often give it the credit for all the things going on there, but there are a lot of moving parts which made it interesting for us.”
The fire has been contained now, with DELWP and Parks Victoria crews staying on the Island to get started on the clean-up operation in the National Park, blacking out anything still smouldering, repairing roads and clearing fallen trees, and wildlife rehabilitation work.