“Now that all the media hype is gone [after the bushfires], our community radio station is still there during the recovery, which will go on for years,” says Peter Weeks who tells radioinfo this week how his station, Radio Murrindindi UGfm, survived the Black Saturday Bushfires and is now helping to rebuild the community around Marysville.
UGfm has been involved with emergency broadcasting for close to the 15 years and it is one of reasons for the station being in the Murrindindi Shire. The station has strong local ties with the Emergency Services and backup power generators are always ready, along with spare fuel and additional presenters on stand-by.
This is Peter Weeks’ story.
On February 7th 2009 we knew it was going to be a bad day.
Around midday word came through that a fire had started at Kilmore East (just outside our broadcast area) and we began letting listeners know of the situation. There wasn’t a lot of information available from the fire services at the time, but I knew things weren’t good as fire was all around Wandong. The mercury was nudging 45 degrees with winds from the N-NE gusting to 100 km/h or more. Perfect fire weather.
Knowing the lay of the land I was very concerned for people in the Flowerdale and Kinglake West area, because that was the direction it was heading. One of four UGfm transmitters was located at Flowerdale and prior to any official warnings I made the decision to warn residents that they were in the line of fire and should enact their fire plans; that meant either staying and defending or going.
Around 3.15pm Country Fire Authority (CFA) contacted me with the news of a second fire at Murrindindi that had started around 3pm; this was not good.
It was now out of control and burning to the SE heading into the Black Range. Again, using knowledge of the area, I started warning residents in the Narbethong and Buxton area that a fire was heading their way and to enact their fire plan.
I called in more presenters to help with the situation as things were not looking good and getting worse by the minute.
Broadcast Australia called at 3.30pm asking me to help restore ABC Radio and TV services at their relay site that served the whole area, I knew we needed to keep these services on the air and thought we would have a good two to three hours before any impact on Flowerdale or Narbethong, so I made a dash to their site and placed them on generator power as the mains power supply was not coping.
Gerry took over on air and continued to broadcast warnings every 15 minutes even though information was still sketchy.
On the way I could see the huge mushroom clouds of the two fires forming their own weather patterns, winds were gale force and it was stinking hot. I received a call from the DSE fire room Incident Controller to say the fire was spotting into Narbethong at 4.20pm. The fire was moving at a speed way beyond expectation and spotting ahead around 20km, it was literally raining fire in the Acheron Valley around Narbethong and Buxton, with gum nuts and burning sticks and embers falling from the sky along with lightning from the fire storm.
I called the studio and went to air warning everyone of the situation around 4.22pm. It was this timely alert and a follow up alert from the Alexandra CFA Group Officer that helped to save many lives.
The Municipal Emergency Co-ordination Centre (MECC) was set up and began operating around 4.30pm.
I arrived back at the studio to help and we were receiving contradictory information about the fire from official media releases which we knew to be wrong. We had to contradict them with up to date information we were receiving from the CFA and DSE Incident Control Centre. The information distribution system was too slow in a fast moving fire and could not keep up with what was really happening.
Mansfield Community Radio called and asked to take a feed from us in entirety to keep their listeners informed as well as in case the fire continued to spread toward the Mansfield area, which was the prediction.
We called in more presenters and around 4.55pm with more bad information that the fire was closing in on Marysville, we warned listeners in that area about the danger approaching. Our Mt Gordon transmitter was incinerated and we lost power over the whole area at 5.15pm.
We went to generator supply and re-established our high powered transmitter at 5.50pm. Internet was down for a while until we re-established power to the server at the Shire Council and continued to warn listeners of the fire’s approach to Buxton, Taggerty and Alexandra along with Kinglake West and Flowerdale.
Around 7pm we lost our Flowerdale transmitter due to fire in that area but were able to keep listeners up to date through the secondary Yea transmitter and Primary Alexandra/Lake Eildon transmitters that both give reasonable coverage to the fire affected areas of Marysville and Flowerdale.
I received a phone call from the Marysville SES controller asking where 500 people in a convoy were on their way to Alexandra for refuge from Maxville and Buxton should go.
In all my 35 years of emergency service involvement I have never been so shocked and felt cold in disbelief of what had happened. Marysville was gone and also much of Buxton and Narbethong.
I gave the SES the information they needed. The expected wind change that took out Marysville was a little earlier than expected and it now was pushing the fire straight for Alexandra. it was pitch black, the power was off with thick choking smoke that you could see only 10 meters in front of you. People were everywhere, bringing with them whatever belongings they had or could grab: dogs, cats, boats, caravans, horses and motor bikes.
We continued to broadcast information every 15 minutes, and interviewed the incident controller around 7.30pm telling us of losses of houses at Marysville. We also started getting reports of property losses from Flowerdale area, but it was all very sketchy.
By receiving information through fax and email and (slow) website updates, we were able to keep listeners informed as much as possible about the other fires burning around Whittlesea and Kinglake.
With the fires moving through, OPTUS lost all mobile phone services to the area and Telstra lost mobile services at Kinglake, Flowerdale and Marysville meaning listeners relied very heavily on the information we were broadcasting. It was apparent how vital a service for the community we were providing.
I asked the Eildon fire spotter to refuel our generator at 8.00pm and went out to refuel the CFA, DSE and Ambulance generator at their transmitter site just south of Alexandra to find a Bulldozer and two Graders appearing out of the thick smoke placing a fire break around Alexandra. It looked something like a scene from Mars with big machines, flashing lights and bright headlights, thick orange smoke and dust. It was still around 40 degrees. The wind change hit around 8.15pm and the temperature dropped to 36.
We organized welfare for our presenters from the Red Cross to be supplied on an ongoing basis at the same time as meals were dropped off for the MECC next door.
We were concerned about fuel supplies as we didn’t know how long the power would be out and started to make contingency plans. We were able to obtain diesel fuel and refuelled the MECC & Studio Generators. Unleaded was not available and this would have been an issue had the power not returned around 11.15pm. The power company had isolated the King Parrot & Acheron Valleys. We were very lucky as power did not return to many of those areas for 2 to 3 weeks.
We spoke with the CFA Group Officer from Alexandra who gave us an update around 8.30pm and told us the fire fighters with crews from NSW were making a stand to try and pull the fire up at Taggerty, 16km south of Alexandra. We found it very calming for people under stress to hear from those in charge of the fire fight telling what is being done and explaining the situation.
Around 9.00pm we organized 8 hour shifts for 24 hour operation, with a one hour hand over and a designated shift leader for the next week of operation. We normally produce around 16 hours each day of programs.
At 9.30pm the Incident Controller gave us a further update and told us the fire had been slowed, however, the wind turned back toward the NW and the fires continued to roar into the Eucalypt forested mountains.
We continued to broadcast fire warnings, alerts and road closures and to let those affected know where they could register with the Red Cross and seek shelter. The Red Cross co-ordinated bedding, lighting and food for those affected by the fires.
All information such as telephone calls were logged and all media alerts kept for later reference along with the station’s off air log of broadcasting.
We found it was important to keep repeating information every 15 minutes so people would know when to tune in.
We continued to receive stressful phone calls from people in and around the fire front and those many km away, unsure where the fire was and what to do. We found ourselves trying to calm people down and give them the best information possible. What made the issue worse was that all roads south to Melbourne were cut by fire.
After almost a week of 24 hour operation we were able to scale back to 18 hours with 24 hour contact to scale up if needed, with this only happening twice in the following 4 weeks.
We were able to utilize OPTUS’s large generator to power our Marysville transmitter and temporary antenna loaned by Broadcast Australia and get back on air 5 days later. Also, Telstra helped with power at Flowerdale to get us back on air.
It was tremendous to see Telstra, OPTUS, and everyone working together for the better. These sites ran on generator power for 4 weeks, something that needs to be considered by emergency broadcasters.
I think rivalry between sectors must be dropped in times of emergency and all should work together to help save life and property as they did in this instance. If your station is in an emergency situation, you must be aware of your responsibilities and be available 24 hours each day. Remember it is boots and all or not at all.
Peter Weeks and his station received one of the Community Broadcast sector’s major awards at the CBAA Awards last weekend. Photos taken by station volunteers during the fires and recovery period are below.
Peter Weeks repairs the Tx at Flowerdale
Burnt out Mount Gordon Tx Tower
Marysville school burns
Safe Area tents for residents