Families are at the centre of Nuriootpa CFS and when you take a closer look at the brigade, serving the community has run in the blood for generations. From left: John and his son, Shane Atze, Group Officer; the Billings, Tyler, Jason (Lt. III) and Regan Billing; Jaimee and her father, Lt. I Daryl Mustard (front); Gerold and Nicholas Seppelt; Ryan, Russell and Simon Butler (absent); Brigade chairman, Aub Rohrlach with son, Troy; Tyson Rohrlach (Lt. II) whose father, Graham Rohrlach (absent) is also a member; Cameron Williams and his mother, Jacqui.

Nuriootpa’s Family of Firies

Family is at the centre of Nuriootpa CFS, where names like Rohrlach, Schilling, Boehm and Atze are among the many families listed on the honour board.

With more than 220 calls already this year, the specialist brigade of three appliances responds to fires, as well as road crashes and hazmat incidents. And most recently, it was rising floodwaters that kept crews busy for hours on end.

“That’s close to one call every day and a half – some days have three or four – it’s a lot of time away from the family, a lot of times are during the middle of the night. It puts strain on the families as well,” said brigade Captain, Stuart Boehm who began as a cadet close to 30 years ago.

He is just one example within the brigade of how a father inspired a son to continue a family legacy that has been key to Nuriootpa’s success since establishing back in 1942. For Stuart, following in his late father’s footsteps is about mateship and camaraderie, something that came to the forefront when his partner of 20 years passed away from a heart attack at just 36 years of age.

“During that time, you really knew how close these members of the fire brigade were. They are all great mates. They are family – brothers and sisters.” – Stuart Boehm

It’s those strong connections within the brigade that has moved members like former Captain, John Atze to encourage his son to join; Aub and his cousin, Graham to get their sons involved and many more within the brigade to do the same.

“We have a great family atmosphere, we have good social outings as well. “You need to involve the families because they go through a lot back at home and you need to involve the kids.” The Penfold’s employee also acknowledged the strong support given by member’s workplaces. Nuriootpa CFS cover a large section of Sturt Highway, from halfway to Blanchetown to halfway to Gawler and are called to many car crashes.

“Car crashes are just on-going. That’s always there and always will be. I’m fine with it but we try to always make sure we don’t put too many new ones into something they don’t need to see. “It will either make you or break you…. It’s not for everyone.”

This thoughtful approach to members has always been at the heart of the brigade which has a successful cadet programme and at least 10 female members within the ranks. For anything major, the CFS Stress Prevention and Management team (SPAM) offer support, but Stuart said the Nuriootpa CFS family are all in it together and the Pinery fire was a prime example.

“We talk together, have a drink together and discuss any issues we had. We ring each other up to make sure everyone is dealing with it. “At the end of the day, we are here to protect the community and we’ve got a good bunch of people that are good at what they do.”

Nuriootpa Fire Station on Old Kapunda Road

Remembering Pinery 12 months on

Memories of the day Barossa skies turned black are firmly etched in the minds of many.

We all saw it – the thick plumes of smoke that billowed hundreds of metres into the air, high above a flaming fury that engulfed everything in its path, leaving a charred trail of destruction that changed the lives of all in its scar.

Twelve months on from the Pinery fire, Nuriootpa’s recently appointed CFS captain, Stuart “Mos” Boehm reflects on a terrifying day for the community. A CFS volunteer for the past 29 years, he said the brigade’s first appliance left the Nuriootpa station for Pinery soon after the fire had started burning out of control.

“They ended up getting most of the way before they couldn’t get any further with fire impact,” Stuart explained. The fire was closing in on Freeling, wind had picked up and a call for crews from each brigade in the Northern Barossa Group was made. “We got called down to the highway to stop it breaching the highway. I took my crew down straight away, before the other brigades got their trucks mobile, and we were pretty much the first one down by the highway.”

“It was dead calm to start with and then as the fire hit, it was pretty loud – a roar.”

The crew of five arrived at the Freeling turnoff near Daveyston on the Sturt Highway to an unexpected scene. “It was just bedlam, like Armageddon. Everything turned black,” said Stuart, painting a vivid picture of what his crew faced. “The fire had already breached the highway at that point, it was going pretty hard. The issue was the traffic, it was just chaotic.

“We went to actually fight the fire, but we didn’t even think about fighting the fire. Our main thought was trying to get the people out of there because we basically had a traffic jam from the highway all the way back to Freeling… it was bumper to bumper.” Hazard lights were flashing in the black smoke and visibility was close to zero, the crew had headed straight into what everyone else were trying to escape.

“There were semis trying to do a u-bolt on the intersection which meant the cars from Freeling couldn’t get out and the fire was breaching the road… there were cars travelling all directions on the highway, on the wrong side of the road. Cars out in paddocks, cars on fire, there were people running down the highway that just didn’t know where they were. It was so dark.

“We tried to get as many people out of there as possible, which was a hard task by ourselves.”

The Nuri CFS volunteers were ten minutes into the chaos, when Truro Brigade arrived to help. “We picked one bloke up and chucked him in the back of the truck because he just didn’t know where he was and he had ended up out in the paddock. There were cars on fire on the side of the road so we were trying to make sure there was no one in those as well….

“Between ourselves and Truro, we came across a lady with six week old twins, so we got her out of the car. “We put her in the truck, plus the two babies as well, plus trying to continue to fight the fire and getting people out of the way while on the phone to the ambulance.”

More time passed before other appliances began to arrive and the crew’s civilian passengers were safely transferred to the ambulance. “Our job was done there. We couldn’t stop the fire, we had the big fire bomber put a line along the highway which stopped most of it, we were gone by the time that came over.”

But it was what came later that “sort of kicked me in the guts,” Stuart said. “We could see that the fire had breached the Freeling Road and was heading towards Greenock, so we made the call to go into Greenock. “The fire was just breaching over the hill when we got to Nain Road and there was the old church….We decided, as a team, that we were going to try and protect that church, which is now turned into a house.

“We situated ourselves behind that church because the fire was burning on an angle across it. We were pretty well safe where we were with the weather conditions,” continued Stuart. “But like a normal fire of this size does, it is unpredictable and it turned and set its sights straight on us. I had two guys out around the side of the house trying to protect it and the fire just turned and lipped straight at us. We were caught.”

Stuart’s 29 years of training kicked in and the safety of his crew was priority. “I made the call for a burn over which is the safety aspect of the appliance. “I couldn’t get hold of the other two people on the hose so I made the call to get out and try and find them and was basically on all fours trying to get back on the truck,” Stuart said.

Everyone managed to get back and huddled inside the cabin, with oxygen masks on, as they went into burn-over. Fire curtains were down and the high-tech halo around the top of the appliance shot sheets of water all around and over the cabin.

“It seemed like an eternity but it could have only been one or two minutes,” Stuart said describing the hot embers that had filled the cab.

“It was dead calm to start with and then as the fire hit, it was pretty loud – a roar. “You could feel the heat penetrating through the side of the truck. “Everyone made it through but it was pretty harrowing.”

Whilst he said he didn’t fear for his life, he was worried for his crew. “This one shook the boat,” he admitted. “I put them there so it was my responsibility to get them out of there.”

“The crew did a marvellous job, I didn’t need to tell them anything, they knew exactly what they were doing which is what Nuri is all about. “We train hard so we know what to do in these situations.”

Meanwhile, the other Nuriootpa appliances had heard Stuart’s mayday call on the radio system which “was bad that day” because of high traffic. They dropped what they were doing to head out and “save their mates”, arriving through pitch black smoke that didn’t lift for at least three quarters of an hour.

“While one of the other Nuri appliances were there, a four wheel drive came up over the hill, didn’t see them in the smoke and hit the front of the appliance that was there rescuing us. So that became a road crash. “The truck was damaged but still operational. The problem was we couldn’t get the car out from under the bull bar of the truck so we had to cut it away with our rescue appliance which was now on site.

“We got the car off the front of the truck, saved the house and everyone was safe.” Incidents like these were “happening everywhere” around the fire ground as a result of community panic.

Stuart’s crew of five continued on to save a house in high crop when 3-4 metre high flames breached the Kapunda Greenock Road and later, assisted by aerial bombers, helped stop the fire when it jumped the Truro Kapunda Road. “That would have been close to 11-12 at night.”

Their shift done, the crew returned to base where people had gathered during the power outage to support their firies and find out the latest information on where it was safe to go. “There were a lot of families here as well – it was a busy place”.

Stuart’s local knowledge resulted in him being sector commander in charge of 3-4 strike teams from Victoria and NSW, for 16 hours the next day. “The fire was pretty much contained by the second day. They were having a lot of flair ups and there were a lot of reported house fires. We were doing a lot of kilometres in a hurry, trying to get to these breakouts,” he said. “We were checking some of the houses for occupants, pets and stuff like that… and making sure everything was safe.

“Yeah, I saw a lot of stuff that day.”

Nuriootpa CFS Captain Stuart “Mos” Boehm is one of hundreds of firies who risked their lives when the Pinery fire struck its hefty toll on the region. Stuart’s story serves as a warning of the ever-present dangers of Summer.

A timely warning

“It could always happen again,” is the ominous reality Nuriootpa’s CFS Captain wants his community to understand.

Captain Stuart Boehm and fellow volunteers, which number around 40 including auxiliary members, know first hand how fast and erratic a fire the size of Pinery can be, and with Summer here, their message is clear – lessons must be learned. “People just need to get their bush fire action plan into place and make the call early,” he warned.

Stuart describes last year’s fire as though it was some gigantic, out of control flame-filled monster, devouring houses and leaving others alone as it sped through paddocks at a furious pace.

There is reason for his concern after witnessing the panic out on the roads. “They need to decide whether they want to leave or stay and defend because that day last year, obviously everyone decided to leave too late and it caused a massive traffic jam.

“The thing is, people need to be aware of what happened last year… fires are unpredictable and under these certain conditions it can do anything. “It’s just a beast that had its own life and did what it wanted to do. There was no way you could stop it at its peak.”

He said it isn’t just rural property owners who needed to plan for the worst. “We’ve lost houses in the town at Freeling and Wasleys…. It’s not just people on the farm that need a bush fire action plan, it’s the town folk as well.

“This fire shows that it can take anything, anywhere and it can travel quicker than you can believe.”