The efforts of soldiers in battling a blaze that razed the 134-year-old Puckapunyal Military Area (PMA) primary school late last year were not in vain, as the outcome could have been much worse.
The children will start the new school year in temporary facilities, but the actions of local residents, including staff from the Combined Arms Training Centre (CATC), and 16 fire crews prevented the fast-moving December 6 fire from spreading to married quarters and surrounding bushland.
CATC operations officer Major Matt Whitwell was about to take his children on a bike ride on the day of the fire when he noticed a cloud of smoke coming from the direction of the school.
“Not having heard any sirens or activity around the married quarter area, I decided to go up to the school and see if it was a controlled burn or not,” he said.
A single Ventia (Defence-contracted fire and rescue) fire truck was on the scene with firefighters preparing hoses and equipment.
“I asked if they needed any assistance, and was told that other crews en route would need an escort,” Major Whitwell said.
“I saw one firefighter was flat out on his radio as well as helping another firefighter remove his oxygen cylinder from the breathing apparatus.
“I asked one of Wilson Security guards to head to the front gate, and started helping them with the cylinder.
“As I was doing so, I heard a shout from behind me.”
Running towards Major Whitwell were Warrant Officer Class 2 Bernie Maus, from the School of Armour (SoARMD), and United States Marine Corps (USMC) personnel on exchange, Master Sergeant Ricky Farrell and Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Accornero.
They helped roll out fire hoses to near the school’s main buildings, connect them to the fire trucks, and continue changing oxygen cylinders as required by the fire crews who were working to contain the blaze.
“By the time it had taken us to do this, the fire had become a furnace, spreading very quickly along the length of the school buildings, and was getting incredibly hot,” Major Whitwell said.
“Thick smoke was everywhere and making it hard to breathe in some areas and embers were landing on us and burning our clothes.”
The fire had become a furnace, spreading very quickly along the length of the school buildings.
School of Artillery Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Benny Gray and Major John Ozols from the School of Armour arrived and cleared the netball and volleyball courts to give the trucks better access to the fire.
Major Whitwell said Master Sergeant Farrell and Major Ozols located a fire hydrant on the edge of the netball courts and began running out lengths of hose to the yet-unburnt end of the main building.
“Our job then was to help the fire crews attacking the fire from the front by replacing damaged or burnt hoses with new sections of hose to give them as much reach as possible,” Major Whitwell said.
While doing so, Major Ozols identified a hose that was laid out and not in use, which he turned on and directed towards the fire, soon backed up by Major Whitwell and Gunnery Sergeant Accornero.
“We were soon replaced by three to four firefighters who took the hose from us, but we kept busy replacing burnt hoses, extending and reconnecting new hoses and assisting the firefighters wherever we could,” Major Whitwell said.
An electrical fault was later identified as the cause of the fire.
The outcome could have been much worse.
"Because of to the strength and direction of the winds at the time, there was a genuine concern from us and the firefighters that the fire would jump from the school," Major Whitwell said.
"But because of the exceptional efforts of the Ventia team and Country Fire Authority volunteers, this potentially catastrophic situation was averted,” Maj Whitwell said.
Major Whitwell said there were plenty of positives to come from the experience, including working alongside the firefighters.
He said witnessing their courage, professionalism and determination was very rewarding.
“I also have a distinct memory while fighting the fire: looking to my half-right into the building and seeing a firefighter inside the building, only about one or two rooms along from where the firefront had reached,” he said.
“I was later told they were trying to clear the remaining offices to ensure no-one was trapped inside, and to recover anything of value along the way.
“I believe they were able to save the Grade 6 students’ graduation trophies and certificates.”
PMA station officer Michael Simpson was thankful for the efforts of the soldiers who alleviated the strain on the firefighters.
“Your actions, and those of your colleagues on the day are a true reflection of the values that exist within the Puckapunyal community, and all military personnel who without question, were prepared to help others,” Mr Simpson told the soldiers.
Senior ADF Officer Puckapunyal and CATC Commandant Colonel David McCammon said he was proud of the effort of the Australian and US exchange soldiers who pitched in, and for the community support received from local towns and Victoria Police, State Emergency Service, Ambulance Victoria and Rescue Victoria.
“We’ve made arrangements to keep the children at school together onsite at the PMA until the school rebuilds – the bonds in this community will remain strong,” he said.