Channel Nine 1983 news report showing Panton Hill CFA truck burned out.
Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, 16 February 1983 15:22 Hrs
❝ My father was asked to stay behind for another shift. The following day I received a telephone call from my tearful mother. All she could say was 'It's them', referring to the discovery of 12 dead firemen and their trucks. Bryan, 12th April, 2012.

Wednesday February 16th 1983

Spot fires have grown into uncontrolled fires in Cudgee Braxholme, Mt Macedon, Monivale, Warburton, the Otways and the Dandenongs.

"... I remember the smoke blackening the air. It seemed like the fires were just beyond the ridge to the south. Yet the fires were many kilometres away in the Dandenongs. I was living in Panton Hill, a small community 40km north east of Melbourne. When the local CFA siren sounded, my father raced up the dirt road to respond, just like many other local CFA members including my friends Stuart and Neville. A truck was sent with both of them and three other local men. My father was asked to stay behind for another shift. The following day I received a telephone call from my tearful mother. All she could say was "It's them", referring to the discovery of 12 dead firemen and their trucks. I was devastated, as was everyone else in our small town. My life has never been the same. Don't expect to find happiness in the distant future, seek it out now! RIP Stuart, Neville, and all the other brave volunteer and professional fire fighters who have lost their lives trying to keep others safe. And all those living firefighters who put their lives on the line have my undying admiration. Most particularly those who volunteer. ..." Bryan [0]

The Trip

For the Panton Hill crew the journey would have been a long one. Panton Hill is 32 km north east of Melbourne. To get to the Dandenongs means a trip through Kangaroo Ground, Warrandyte, Ringwood then depending on what time they arrived possibly a drive down Dorset Rd to Ferntree Gulley then Emerald to Upper Beaconsfield. This is the most logical route. That's 70 kilometres to get to the fire in a 4 tonne International Fire Tanker. Going from Ferntree Gully to Emerald has quite hilly terrain. It would have been a long trip. [4]

Upper Beaconsfield Upper Beaconsfield Upper Beaconsfield

Upper Beaconsfield

"... As soon as I saw the column of smoke I knew we were in trouble, the day as it was and the area where it started. The whole fire just swept up right through Upper Beaconsfield and took out half the town. At that point, when the wind changed, it was a matter of everyone for themselves. ..." [2] Eric Bumpstead, CFA Captian Upper Beaconsfield.

A fire broke out at 1522 at Belgrave heights fanned by strongs winds pushing the fire in a southerly direction. The temperature is 43 degrees, 6% humidity with winds blowing in the range of 60 kilometers per hour. By 2050 the fire had crossed the Beaconsfield / Emerald road and the wind changed. [1]

"... It was like a hail storm, but it wasn't hail. It was red hot coals and twigs and all [of that] was burning you had to turn your back to it and you were getting pelted with that. It was a devastating fire. ..." [3] Eric Bumpstead, CFA Captian, Upper Beaconsfield.

From blowing in a southerly direction, the fire now turned sideways turning a 1 kilometer fire front into a 15 kilometer fire front. Winds now reached 100 km/hr parallel to the Princess Highway to the right, Cardinia Reservoir to the left. Upper Beaconsfield lay in it's path. There are no timestamps on the fire distribution map that I'm describing. That was the scene a Panton Hill CFA tanker crew found themselves in on that day. I knew most of the crew on that tanker. A mate, a mates brother. Anothers step father. Of the three locals on the Fire tanker, I knew Nev the best. I knew Stuart because his brother Wayne was in the same year as Nev and myself. I knew of Mr Marsden because I'd had classes with Chris. So for me this is personal.

Post fire, Upper Beaconsfield Post fire, Upper Beaconsfield Post fire, Upper Beaconsfield

Post Fire

The last I'd seen of Nev was the finals at High School. I wrote the following in 2007.

"... I started school with Neville, did the same classes, same house, played cricket & footy in the lunchtime breaks. Nevs' family where Orchardists, growing apples in the hilly areas of Panton Hill not far from this shot. At school we visited the Jefferys farm in one of our classes. We got to see how they farmed the land. My overriding memory is the drip feeding setup they had to equalise the pressure in the pipes when watering the trees and the steepness of the land. Nev was going to Dookie (oldest Ag college in Vic) that year looking to continue on the land no doubt. But it was not to be. Tragedy was to strike the Jefferys again not long after the fires. Mr. Jeffery died from a heart attack. Sad stuff. When I found out about the memorial service all those years ago I made a choice of having a school photo taken instead of attending. I'd already had a pretty crappy year and I didn't want to start the new one with a service. Bush fires are part of life here, a constant threat. If you live around the area long enough there is no way you escape it. I grew up with them as a 4 year old, drawing black pictures in kinder for months after (so my mum tells me). So in the summer it never really leaves your mind, will a fire start this year? In '83 a big one stared. And as a volunteer the Panton Hill CFA Nev with other members went to help and paid the ultimate price. ..." [5]

Panton Hill, 2007 Panton Hill, 2007

I was lucky while I was at University, I had a job. School was in the city and every day, was in a day without trees. Work was with parks and gardens with the local Shire Council. I got the job through Gary. I'd known Gary for years. He played Basketball with the same club. So I got to mow, pick—up rubbish then have a BBQ lunch in the Panton Hill Memorial Park.

For pretty much the entire time I was at Uni, I'd spend all my spare days and holidays working through the shire. This included the up-keep of the Panton Hill memorial Park. After the fires, a glass block was laid in stone at the park as a memorial. So while I worked at the central depot Bernie and myself would often spend the morning cleaning up the park, crack out the snags and have lunch at this park.

The Panton Hill CFA had errected a memorial for the firefighters killed. A yokel took to the glass memorial block with a shotgun.

A Revisit: February 16th 2013

After the fire, I barely remember the newspaper and television coverage. The lingering memory a burned out International Fire tanker reported in, "The Sun" or "The Herald." Coronial reports aren't released to the public. There is certainly no mention of how they got into trouble, where they traveled. 30 years later I to take a look myself.

Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013


Firstly I started on—line. I found the original image I saw in the newspapers. It's a black and white unidentified photograph of a fire tanker in Upper Beaconsfield.The images are not in the public domain but you can see them here. [6] It's not much but gives you an idea of the equipment at the time. The fire truck new would have looked like the tanker shown here outside the Diamond Creek CFA fire station in 1982. [7]

To me looking at the tanker, there is no real protection. The windows, doors in the cabin are standard fittings and the crew are exposed.In another shot shown on the online ABC 30th memorial I saw a shot of the typical kit issued to CFA fire fighters in 1982. [8] The heavy cotton boiler suits, the plastic hard hats and neck cooler. The choice of kit was to have tragic consequences on Ash Wednesday.

Next I searched on Youtube for any TV footage at the time. I was in luck. Someone had copied the original 1983, GTV-9 news reports. Then by luck I saw a scene I'd missed on the news. The footage narrated by Brian Naylor) shows the chaotic scene late in the afternoon and news the following day the two burned out tankers in Upper Beaconsfield. That afternoon I'd learned more about the fire in five mintues than I had known for over thirty years. I screen capped the shots and it gave me an indication of where the trucks got caught. With that information I picked a day to find the location shown in these images.

Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013

Upper Beaconsfield: February 2nd 2013

I need to see the location. Looking at images was not going to be enough. I got out the Melways and looked for 'St Georges Rd', Upper Beaconsfield. While it wasn't hard to locate, navigating proved a pain. Eventually I found the main town and parked the car. Got out and purchased some bread, a drink and checked the map again. Osbourne road can clearly be seen on the Youtube footage. [9] So I followed the road and located the entrance to the park. Got out of the car and followed the track down the hill. The first thing that strikes me is the width of the track. It's not wide enough to turn around. Once you commit, that's it. The next thing is the trees. Even after 30 years you can see the blackness of the trunks.

There is some works going on. There's a excavator at the top of the park and the track has been cleared. My guess this is for the memorial but I later find it's for a firebreak. The completion date was meant to be 2011/12. As I go further down the hill I can't see anything that resembles the photos I've seen. What I do know is this road faces west, the direction of the fire. As the wind changed at 2050. It would have been dark by then. As I write this it's now dark at the same time. You would have been able to see the fire coming towards you. There's no way to turn around.

You simply cannot maneuver these tankers with up to 4 tonne of water easily. I estimate the slope is fifteen degrees at some places. I travel further down the hill. I don't find any marker showing the spot so I make my way up. On the way up I thought I could make out the spot where the photos show the trucks stopped. But on the news tonight it looks like there is in fact a marker. I'll go have a better look when winter comes around. I took a few shots at the top showing the name of the park entrance and left.

I had some lunch at the Upper Beaconsfield memorial up near the Post office. Interesting read of the posters they had up. The pre-Internet warnings were a lot different. I then left. I was running low on fuel I played chicken with low levels of petrol only locating a petrol station with "Lo" on the fuel gauge.

Panton Hill: February 16th 2013

Today I went up to Panton Hill. I knew they'd have something planned at the park, took some shots and went home. I'd seen enough. Later on in the day the seven o'clock news came on. There was a follow-up story with Eric Bumpstead and some footage of CFA members laying some flowers at yet another memorial. I'll have to search for this some other day. I'd seen enough.

Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013

A lot of things changed after Ash Wednesday. It still is the largest single loss of CFA personal in one fire. Pre Ash Wednesday the kit supplied was adequate for grass fires, useless for forest fires.

"... Robert Rankin AFSM has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service to the community through the CFA, as part of the Queen’s Birthday awards. The former executive manager of CFA Fleet Services first joined CFA in 1981 as a design engineer in the mechanical services division. Over the next 30 years he was instrumental in a number of fire truck upgrades that still protect firefighters today. ..." [10]

Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013

People such as Robert Rankin have spent their careers working on improving the safety of vehicles. One of the biggest problems with fires is a burn-over where flames engulf the truck, occupants and those inside. This is what happened to the Panton Hill crew. Fire quickly over-ran the truck, incinerating the crew.

Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013 Upper Beaconsfield, 2013

In the Black Saturday Bushfire, February 22, 2009, a Diamond Creek tanker in Wandong was over-run by fire. The occupants put the truck in "survival mode"using water carried in the back to protect the crew. The whole vehicle survived because it was engineered to withstand such a situation. [11] [12 ]Then there is the clothing. Instead of cotton, sturdy boots it's a fire system, starting with personal protection clothing (structural system) [13] specifically designed for keeping the wearers cool yet still being able to withstand high temperatures.

Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013

Science is now driving the kit being supplied. Breathing apparatus, personal communications and location equipment, air quality monitors and training to use and maintain this kit. This is above and beyond the actual fire training. There is a whole section set up to drive this innovation. [14]

Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013 Panton Hill, 2013

A lot of the advances mentioned can be traced to the loss of life on the day. 75 lives on Ash Wednesday. 21 in Upper Beaconsfield. Nine residents and twelve fire fighters. [15] The CFA is becoming more professional. But mistakes are still made. You could see this on Black Satuday. Another fire, another place.

Panton Hill, 2012 Panton Hill, 2013

When I looked up the CFA, 'Roll of Honour', I found a picture of Nev and Stu. Head shots taken from their last High School photos just as I remember them. [16]


[0] ABC, Bryan (12 Apr 2012) , '75 perish in the Ash Wednesday bushfires'

[1] Ash Wednesday, "details and maps of the location of the fire on the day" WEDNESDAY.htm

[2] ABC News, Danny Morgan, "Survivors mark 30th anniversary of Ash Wednesday"

[3] Ibid.

[4] The alternative is a 73km trip Ferntree Gulley to Noble Park North to Berwick and then Upper Beaconsfield via the Monash Freeway. Faster but riskier to get to Upper Beaconsfield. There's only one road up.

[5] flickr, bootload, "Ash Wednesday set"

[6] Ash Wednesday Bushfires, "FEBRUARY 18, 1983: COCKATOO, VIC. The fire... By News Ltd 18 February, 1983" (3rd image across, fire tanker burned out)

[7] Yarra Plenty Regional Library, 1982, "Diamond Creek C.F.A. trucks and station"

[8] ABC, Danny Morgan, "Survivors mark 30th anniversary of Ash Wednesday"

[9] youtube, gonadsftw, "10 minutes of coverage by channel 9 on the horrific Ash Wednesday Bushfires of 1983 in February, presented by Brian Naylor (R.I.P) with reports by Peter Mitchell and others"

[10] CFA Connect, "Recognition for firefighter safety, 2012"

[11] youtube, CFATV, Part 1, "Diamond Creek tanker in Wandong, February 22, 2009 the crew went into 'fire protection mode to survive"

[12] youtube, CFATV, Part 2, "Diamond Creek tanker in Wandong, February 22, 2009 the crew went into 'fire protection mode to survive"

[13] CFA Connect, "New structural PPC rollout complete, 2011"

[14] CFA Connect, "The Innovators – Part 2: Protective Equipment Department"

[15] ABC, Danny Morgan, "Survivors mark 30th anniversary of Ash Wednesday" Ibid.

[16] CFA, Roll of Honour, "This roll of honour commemorates all CFA firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty since the formation of CFA"


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