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September 17th 2017 print

Roger Underwood

Feeding Firefighters, Then and Now

I think of my old comrades in the burning forests of Western Australia and smile at the stoic self-reliance that characterised our acceptance of hardship. Then I ponder how today's crews would rather go hungry, or ring their MP, than face a tin of mystery meat simmering on a shovel

shovel food IIThere was an amusing incident in the otherwise ghastly affair of the 2016 Yarloop bushfire (in which a whole town was burned). A crew of  firefighters found themselves hungry and thirsty, and nobody coming to their aid, despite having worked nearly a 12-hour shift. In desperation, they complained (by mobile phone), to their local Member of Parliament.  The concerned MP tried to phone the control point, the Fire and Emergency Service, the minister, the shire, and Parks and Wildlife, all without success. So he dialled the triple-0 emergency number … with the result that the problem was almost instantly resolved, the crew getting a special delivery within the hour.  Hearing about this, the minister did his block, fulminating against inappropriate use of the emergency number, and suggesting, amongst other things, that the MP should have gone out and purchased the crew a pizza.

This was all pretty trivial stuff, to my mind, but it occupied the media for about two days, getting more air time on the ABC than the bushfire itself, and distracting attention from the real issue, which is why the firefighters were up against an unstoppable bushfire in the first place.

But listening to the unfolding drama of the missing meal, I was taken back to the time when I was a firefighter  in the karri forest many years ago. I was a student at the time, and one of the conditions of my forestry scholarship was that I had to work every university vacation as a forest workman. This meant winters planting trees, and summers (because this was late 1950s and early 1960s) fighting bushfires. We would often be at it for days on end.

In those days ,the administration of a firefighting operation was very rough and ready.  There were no shifts or relief crews. The gangs would go to the fire and stay there until the fire was out. Food and drink were not delivered, but were carried on the gang truck, water in canvas water bags and the food in the form of “iron rations”. In the gang I was in at Pemberton in 1960, the iron rations were carried in a wooden box behind the driver’s seat in the cab of the gang truck.

Iron rations comprised only two categories of food. First, there were packets of dry Capstan biscuits. They were always stale and flaky, but they did provide some carbohydrate if you could gag them down. The second was canned food. About half of the tins contained hi-fat/hi-salt meat (bully beef, braised steak or corned beef). This was known universally among forestry firefighters as “tinned dog”. The other tins contained fruit (apricots, peaches or sometimes pineapple) in heavy syrup.

There was always an element of ‘pot-luck’ in opening a tin from the iron rations box.  The tins had  rattled around in the truck for some time, and the labels had nearly always come off, so you never knew what  you were going to get, dog or fruit.  I used to take what came, but our overseer, who took his responsibilities to his young charges seriously, would insist we ate a proper meal, with dog and biscuits first, followed by dessert. The dog was warmed up by emptying the can onto a shovel which was then held over some glowing coals at the edge of the nearby bushfire. I don’t remember any sophistications like plates, knives or forks. I seem to recall that I ate it straight off the shovel with an old soup spoon.

I not only ate it, but I usually did so with gusto, being young and always hungry. Also I was batching in the single men’s camp at the time, and the tinned dog was almost sumptuous compared with some of the meals I cooked. At that time I would never have qualified as a backwoodsman in the US Forest Service, tough men who had to spend weeks in the forests. I read one of their manuals once, and there was a strict examination that had to be passed by those seeking a job. One of the first tests was “Cook a  meal”. The second was “Eat it”.

Back to the fire grounds in 1960/61. The usual routine was that as soon as a smoke was reported by the lookouts, the gangs would be notified and drive to the fire. Here work would commence on attacking the fire edge. This was before the ready availability of bulldozers, so the work was mostly done by hand, using fern hooks, rakes, shovels, packsprays and axes to construct a containment line along the edge of the fire.  Mopping up was done by cutting the ends off burning logs with a crosscut saw and burying them, or throwing burning material into the fire with your shovel..

I was lucky that summer at Pemberton, because our overseer was the legendary Ted Loud. Ted had been in the Army during the war, indeed had been a Sergeant in the Commandos. He was as strong as a Malley bull and tough as teak, and on fireline construction he drove his gang remorselessly. But he did know how to look after his men, and every four hours he would give us a spell. We would boil a billy, drink strong, sugared black tea and eat a can of dog, some biscuits and a can of peaches. When we were so tired we began to drop, he would arrange for us to sleep for two hours in relays. I can remember sleeping on the ground under the truck two nights in a row at one fire; others just lay down on the firebreak where they had been working.  Ted, by the way, never slept, but would have a cat-nap sitting in the truck from time to time, in between smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

One of the first lessons I was taught when I joined a forestry gang was that when you went to a fire, you had to be prepared to be away from home for two or three days, and that during that time the gang was pretty much on its own. We also had to be able to endure the chill in the hours before dawn. After the irony of nearly freezing to death at a bushfire one night, Ted advised me always to carry a “woolly” and my old army great coat in the truck.  This was good advice.

There was another element to the firefighting diet of the day, something that would have appalled a modern occupational health and safety officer. This was the presence of alcohol on the job. Leaving HQ for a fire, the first stop was often the pub, where Ted would run in and buy half a dozen bottles of Swan Lager and a flagon of cheap plonk. I was pretty much a teetotaller in those days, but I watched with interest how the older men in the gang would each knock back a bottle of beer and have a tot of wine before bedding down under the truck. There was no drunkenness. They just needed something to calm their nerves and revive tired minds and spirits. It was analogous, I suppose, to the issue of rum to soldiers in the First World War.

This was understood by our officers. I was in a forestry gang at Dwellingup one night in 1959. We had worked on a fire all day, but had got it knocked down and mopped up by about 11:00pm. We were just packing up the gear when a Holden sedan pulled in. It was Bruce Beggs, the Dwellingup DFO,  come out to do a late-night inspection of the fire and see how we were getting on. Satisfied with the job, Bruce called the gang over to his car, opened the boot and took out six big bottles of cold beer. Everyone had a mug of beer, and there was a general relaxing and conviviality before we headed for home. Bruce (may he rest in peace) would be sacked for something like this today, but at the time I saw it as a gesture of comradeship between the boss and his troops — the hallmark of a true leader.

A year or two later, Bruce Beggs would lead those same men in the defence of the town of Dwellingup on the night of the great fire, and their loyalty, as well as their courage, was not found wanting.

Many years later, when I was the DFO in charge of a south-west forestry district, I remembered that late-night beer in the bush.  It was December 31, New Years Eve, and a fire had started in the Warren National Park south of the river, to which I had sent three crews and a bulldozer. They did a wonderful job and had the fire under control by evening, with an expectation that they would have it all mopped up by about midnight. As this was in the early 1970s, and by then we had a strict health and safety program in the department, there was no grog in the gang trucks or on the fire grounds. However, it being New Year’s Eve, I decided to make an exception, and drove out to the fire, getting there just on midnight. I found the gangs  having a last billy of tea before coming home. From out of my station wagon I produced a carton of cans of mid-strength beer, one for everyone who wanted one, and we drank a toast to the New Year under the smoky stars. No harm was done. I saw it as an opportunity to show respect and affection for my firefighters.

I was lucky to have started my career as a member of a forestry gang. In those days a great many of the forestry crews, and nearly all the leading hands and overseers were ex-servicemen, and they knew about doing it rough and doing it tough. They were proud of their self-reliance, and they looked after their mates. This spirit made it possible to survive testing times and dangerous bushfire situations. Our officers at Pemberton in those days had similar backgrounds, Senior DFO John Meachem having been a decorated officer with the RAAF and DFO Pat McNamara, a Royal Marine during the war. They expected us to get the job done, and they treated us with respect, but we were not mollycoddled and they turned a blind eye to some of the little things that went on, things which today would have somebody crucified on the front page of The West Australian.

Far be it for me to criticise the modern firefighter, especially the volunteers. I accept it is a different world today from the one I knew, and young men and women have different  backgrounds and expectations. These days firefighters expect a hot meal delivered every few hours, prepared by caterers, with fruit juice, bottled water, a flat white, a steak and salad, or a nice casserole, and fresh fruit. They expect to be relieved after 12 hours and, if they don’t go home, to be provided with sleeping quarters, a hot shower and a canteen.  It can cost more to feed the firefighters than fight the fire. It all seems extravagant to me, but I accept it is the standard of care that a modern, sophisticated society is expected to provide for its emergency workers, people who are putting their lives on the line to protect the community and the environment.

Nevertheless, I smile ruefully as I reflect on the story of  the crew of firefighters going hungry when the supply arrangements from HQ broke down and an MP had to phone Triple-0 to sort it out. I think of Ted Loud and his self-reliance and of the way he looked after his men and his mates. And I wonder whether today’s young men and women firefighters would rather go hungry, or ring their MP, than face the contents of a tin of dog simmering on a shovel.

Roger Underwood is a retired forester and chairman of The Bushfire Front, a volunteer organisation dedicated to getting bushfire management in WA back on the rails. His essay on the poor management of the bush, Flaming Idiots, is well worth re-visiting as the summer fire season draws near.

Comments [2]

  1. “It can cost more to feed the firefighters than fight the fire. It all seems extravagant to me, but I accept it is the standard of care that a modern, sophisticated society is expected to provide for its emergency workers, people who are putting their lives on the line to protect the community and the environment”

    That’s not all they want in this so called modern and sophisticated society, they also want the required level of acknowledgement and accolades.

    • iain says:

      Great article – thanks. I was in the old nsw forestry and many of our district foresters who had gone thru the old diploma system were legends. Then that was replaced with the uni only system and we started to get some air heads thru and the organisation got more feminised. Bob carr got in and that just about killed us off, a lot of us had to jump ship and join the npws to stay in a job – bit like going from the boy scouts to the girl guides – a new parrot discovered or a clump of grass revealed didn’t quite excite me like a rumbling kenworth with a load of logs pulled up outside the forestry office – i came from the army to the forestry and couldn’t believe the similarities – our new enemy was fire and produced similar responses to that in a war zone – great times – thanks for the article