This is a brief history of the St. Albans Brigade.
For a lot of old hands who have been fighting fires in the Valley for yonks with wet bags, tree branches and buckets of water, plus lots of faith and good luck, what now appears on the Council parkland in front of the Pub must be really quite amazing. We now have a tanker, whilst not the latest, is the state of the art for bush fire fighting. The shed is equipped with the latest electronic, radio, fax and computing equipment. The kitchen and cooking facilities would do proud to any number of homes in the valley, and our Catering Officer, plans to expand it to potentially commercial cheffing standards. What an improvement over the single bay, leaking skillion roof, creaking broken roller door, damaged guide posts and partially demolished brick pier (courtesy of Mick Jackson !) and a gerrymandered electrical supply which used to make Phil Huntís beard turn white.
1974 saw the first official meeting of the Brigade, there being no minutes,
books or accounts prior to then - Jack Bailey, having been the original
Captain was elected the first President. Noted in the roll call book, at
that first meeting, is the fact that the first member in the oldest record
is C. J. Bailey dated 1946 the next is Don. D. Sternbeck in 1953. 1974
was also significant as it was the only time we have had anything new;-
a Land Rover 4WD to pull the existing tanker trailer and pump. The records
are a bit flimsy, but the 'old' shed appeared around that time also. In
1981 the Land Rover was replaced by a 1978 Toyota Striker with 80 gallon
tank, which was variously housed at the "Captain's discretion". Ken Thompson
followed John Sullivan, the original Captain, in 1976 with Deputies and
members drawn from the Bailey, Thompson, Morris, and Sternbeck families
Other well known 'early joiner' members were Henry Szwanenfeld in 1974, Ken Dumpleton in 1975, and Hal Hayes as a Deputy Captain in 1978. Around 1980 the strength of the Brigade was listed as 15 members with Jack Bailey, often referred to as "the Mayor of St Albans", still our President. 1983 was a significant year for me as Jack retired and "fingered" me as his successor at a meeting that was originally postponed due to lack of a quorum. A number of locals who had historically fought fires, like Ian Robinson, officially became members around this time. Meetings in those days were very infrequent, for the most part all the operational decisions being made on the run as we fought the fire. Peter Ireland and Mark Humphreys, our Secretaries during these early years, wrote the minutes and did the accounts at the AGM whilst the meeting was in progress "to save time and worry later on", they said. At least we had no mailing costs!
Whilst the early history of fires was sporadic and thankfully nothing like January 1994, there were some tragic loses like Ian Robbo's house, and a number of other near misses.
In the mid 80's the Valley population started to grow, and so
did our need for improved fire protection and services. Starting the campaign
in 1984 for a proper tanker - the need had been flagged back in 1980 -
a memorable meeting was held at the back of the pub with the Mayor, John
Horrex, some Councillors, Bill Rodger and other members from Headquarters,
and your executive. We laid it on the line with maps, diagrams, statistics,
and a helluva lot of shouting, that St Albans had to have a 500 gal tanker.
Whilst the need was accepted, Bill Rodger insisted that we had to get up
to speed in terms of our training, radio procedure, coordination with other
brigades, and knowledge of the growing pile of regulations and standard
operating procedures, etc. etc. We got our act together, our first training
session started in 1985, and in 1986 we received our first tanker, the
1971 Leyland, a 4-wheel drive antique. There were some good things to celebrate
at this time - long service medals awarded to Ken Thompson, the late Horace
Thompson, Ray Morris, and Joe Sternbeck.
Around this time the captaincy of the brigade changed and we farewelled Ken Thompson after 10 years as our Captain and Michael Jackson took over for 5 years. John Brownsberger who had joined in 1983 was still Secretary and Greg became Senior Deputy. Gibby and Phil Wombat, Joan & Ian joined around 1987, and we counted our membership as 30 strong.
We still pressed for a more modern tanker and were rewarded in 1988 with an even more antique museum piece, a 1967 Bedford, which plagued Phil Hunt as our indefatigable maintenance and repair officer for the next 7 years. This tanker had the dubious distinction of being the No.002 registered vehicle of the Bush Fire Council's fleet, outliving even it's No.001 counterpart. I think the arguments between Phil and Bill Rodger can still be heard ricocheting around the hills as Phil battled to overcome fuel vaporisation, faulty electrics, failing pump systems, leaking main tank, etc. All who had to drive the "rolling antique" were forced to have the front window open or face being asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes. We often used to say there was more danger in driving the truck than actually fighting the fires!
Greg took over as Captain in 1991, Peter Gibb became Senior Deputy and
Gar Houston joined as both a Deputy and our computer-literate 'numbers
man', giving our accounts some credibility. Neil Falconer succeeded Ian
Robinson, who had helped as Vice President between 1989 and 1991. John
Murtha, a local identity, had a brief stint as Secretary. "Gunbar", applied
his old Sergeant Major skills for scavenging to update our equipment and
secretarial records whilst keeping a fairly hot line running between the
Brigade and Headquarters. Murtha's efforts in administration were tireless,
but his greatest joy was fund raising with the inevitable 44 gallon drum
of diesel offered as the prize on each and every occasion. Doug Shannon
stabilised the administration in 1991 and turned his ex-Qantas flair for
professionalism to our books and correspondence.
Talking about fundraising, we cannot forget Neil's efforts over the past 5 years as Vice President starting with his infamous karioke nights, BBQ's, raffles, and a host of other bright marketing ideas, building our kitty to $9,000 at one stage.
Still the drive for a modern tanker and a new shed went on. We had done our bit, having 5 fully trained Deputies, a number completing crew leader and specialist courses, with some 20 fully trained members and 30 odd active members, with another 20 supportive members - a number of whom have given generously via donations of cash or much needed equipment. In 1994, 20 of our members were qualified as first aiders and a number attended the communications course at Fire Control. We were becoming a pretty professional mob - even attending our first Field Day!
The politics and lobbying for a modern tanker and a proper place to house it, continued apace. A "Needs" study conducted by the Bush Fire Council and the Hawkesbury Shire Council, put St Albans as a top priority Brigade for a new tanker. About this time we drew up some plans for our new shed. Council's architects, in their wisdom, suggested that the roof should be hipped like a Scout Masters hat, the walls should be cement rendered, painted a colonial pink colour, and sealed in anti-graffiti paint. With the support of the then Mayor, Councillor Wendy Sledge, plus letters and deputations from yours truly and Doug Shannon, we changed all that, and now have the shed we wanted. Unfortunately minus a toilet and shower facility, which we would like to add some time in the near future.
The January '94 fires were an horrendous experience for the Brigade and everyone in the Valley. To have some 80 additional tankers and 400 plus firefighters, who had never been in this area before, land on your doorstep one afternoon and then have to be organised into teams and guided throughout the valley by our members acting as scouts, to conduct co-ordinated back- burns during the night of 17th January, presented a mammoth organisational effort. Three to four days prior, our crews and their relief teams took the striker and the old Bedford tanker up the Common to the Dean Sisters, Perry's Crossing, Chappies, and Sullivan's Arm, up the Branch, to Gorricks Run and Melon Creek, and to Wrights Creek, working endless hours to secure property boundaries with controlled burns. Spotting cinders, smoke and black clouds descended on St Albans, everyone speculating the worst, and comparing it to 1978! Despite Robbo's ex-RAAF radio efforts, we battled with impossible communication facilities, which at one stage made our ex-Qantas pilot Secretary manning the radio so frustrated that he signed off with the now famous quip; "over and out, Qantas Flight 1 - flying blind".
Well, as we all know, we survived that night thanks to incredible efforts of our brigade and the support from the Valley community with food, food and more food, Hal's recognisance efforts, loaned equipment and everyone being available and on call, at any time. That night has been relived a dozen times at the pub, and has come to be known as "The Night of 1,000 Tankers".
We will never really know the impact that the ability of an understaffed, under-equipped and under-resourced Brigade like our own had on all incoming Brigades, Headquarters and the Bush Fire Council, of just what can be done with limited gear but great heart and commitment. The need to bring St Albans into the 20th Century with equipment and shed facilities was painfully obvious to any Senior Official visiting the site during that week. In short time the date was set for us to receive the 'new' 1984 4-wheel drive Isuzu , and the final contract signed with our builder, Craig Morris - also a long standing member - for the extensions to the shed.
The Isuzu JCS Category 1 tanker was handed over at a Field Day in May , where a dedicated crew participated in a range of field events, and showed that St Albans could mix it with the best of the urban "professional" crews. Greg received the keys to the tanker and to our surprise and delight, St Albans, whilst not winning any first prizes, we received the "Encouragement Award" for the most improved Brigade in 1994. Many would say a true recognition of the efforts over five or so years of a dedicated band of 'guys and girls'. An effort it has been, which is also reflected in the investment in monetary terms today of plant and equipment in our Brigade worth some $150,000.
I said after the 'January Fires Thankyou Evening', at the acceptance of the new tanker, and most recently at the opening of the new shed, that our Brigade has now come-of-age in terms of its field capacity, management, fundraising, quality membership, equipment and housing, crew organisation, catering and support groups, all of which would not have been possible without an excellent Captain and his band of 'merry persons'.It's taken 3 captains, 3 tankers and 3 mayors to achieve the goal set in 1983 to become a top Brigade and I'm very proud to be its President. Together we have made it, along with the support and help of the Valley community.
1995 sees a handover of our old executive and addition of a number of new faces. Thanks go to retiring Treasurer Gar Houston and Secretary Doug Shannon for their unselfish time and professional devotion in helping us to become one of the best set up Brigades in the Shire. Welcome to incoming replacements Ian Wedge, Audrey Gray and Evan Hardy, and to new Deputies; Scott McKillop, Ian Elton and Garry Jones. Of course, many thanks to Greg and his 'ever faithful' deputies.
Graeme Sheather, President
Thanks to Graheme for this, More history after 1995, including the recent
membership drive and 2001-2 Fires will be added when I get it.
Return to Home Page