Neville Barkhausen and Simon Stoddart.
Neville Barkhausen and Simon Stoddart.

Widgee Disaster Zone: New Zealand firefighters brought in

IF IT wasn’t for the haze of smoke, teams of high visibility workers and convoys of emergency vehicles, visitors to Widgee would not have known there was a disaster on their doorstop yesterday.

Spirits were high, no flames were in sight and the billowing smoke was in the distance for most residents.

Allan Little and Craig Groves from Gympie South Rural Fire Brigade at a fire near Widgee.
Allan Little and Craig Groves from Gympie South Rural Fire Brigade at a fire near Widgee.

But by 1.30pm emergency services had declared Black Snake a disaster zone as hot, gusty winds whipped the bushfire that took hold high in the Black Snake Range six days ago out of containment lines, pushing it down the eastern side of the range and towards properties on Thornside and Upper Thornside Rds.

At least six properties were under direct threat.

Widgee Fires
Widgee Fires

Police door-knocked about 20 properties – enforcing evacuations as firefighters stationed themselves to protect the properties ahead of the altering wind.

At 4pm, the Queensland Fire Emergency and Service warned the fire was likely to impact Thornside Rd and Upper Thornside Rd within 15 minutes and could have a significant impact on the community.

“Windy conditions and low humidity is really driving active fire behaviour,” QFES Acting Area Director Ross Stacey said.

Martijn Brunner, Tim Clark, Alister Neal and Mike Donovan from the New Zealand fire and rescue helping with the current fire situation near Widgee.
Martijn Brunner, Tim Clark, Alister Neal and Mike Donovan from the New Zealand fire and rescue helping with the current fire situation near Widgee.

“At the moment with these conditions, crews are taking every best effort to contain the fire.

“It’s going to be a long day and another couple of long days afterwards,” he said.

The famous Thornside property on Thornside Rd, where the Webb brothers held the first Music Muster in 1982, was in the danger zone.

As smoke billowed in the distance, the current generation of Webb family property owners gathered to check on the property that had been in the family for 125 years.

Helen Webb, who is married to the late Fabian Webb’s son Anthony, who runs 45 head of cattle on 300 acres, was amazed at the strength of the firefighting operation.

“In 1982, the whole place was on fire and we had nothing to help us,” Mrs Webb said.

“I can’t believe the infrastructure we’ve got to fight it now.”

Widgee Fires
Widgee Fires

Down the road, graziers Troy and Kirsty Grattidge generously handed out ice blocks to the team of firefighters stationed on their property.

Mrs Grattidge, who estimated the fire to be about 2km from her property early yesterday afternoon, has been watching the fire in the distance for the last few days.

She joked she felt safe, as long as she was behind the “500” firefighters in her backyard, which included 13 firefighters from New Zealand who had been flown in to help save homes between Widgee and Kilkivan.

The squad arrived in Australia on Tuesday night and undertook training on the Sunshine Coast before driving up to Gympie.

Helen Webb, Anthony Webb, Maria Townsend-Webb and Philomena Henry check on the Webb family property yesterday.
Helen Webb, Anthony Webb, Maria Townsend-Webb and Philomena Henry check on the Webb family property yesterday.

A convoy of firefighting units and ambulances headed out to Widgee yesterday morning, sirens blaring with the fresh firefighters eager to help their Aussie “cousins”.

New Zealand firefighter Mike Donovan said he was happy to be here.

“We love helping out our cousins from across the ditch,” he said.

“We are pretty rearing to go to lend a hand. The terrain is not that different from New Zealand only hotter. We are well equipped, well experienced and well trained.”

Kirsty Grattidge
Kirsty Grattidge

Good will was found in every pocket yesterday, with offers of help between residents and an anonymous drop-off of cartons of beer for the firefighters.

Firefighters will face tough conditions again today, with winds forecast to change to west to south-westerly, possibly reaching up to 25kmh and temperatures topping 33C.