The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) have named 19-year-old Katie Peters, from Tallandoon, as one of the two front-line firefighters who died yesterday battling the Harrietville fire in eastern Victoria.
The DSE are still contacting relatives of a 29-year-old man from Corryong, the fire firefighter who died alongside Ms Peters.
It’s understood the accident occurred in a remote front of the fire when the pair’s emergency vehicle was struck by a falling tree.
Katie Peters had been with DSE for two seasons as a Project Fire Fighter, joining DSE as her first paid job after taking a year off after Year 12 to travel overseas.
In a statement released by DSE, they said Ms Peters was always prepared to have a go and was the first one to put her hand up to drive a tanker or use the chainsaw.
“She loved animals and was planning to be a vet.
“She made time for everyone - she loved working with her colleagues and was incredibly down-to-earth.”
As part of a feature on female fire-fighters recently, Katie spoke of how much she enjoyed the previous season, with one of the highlights attending a bushfire in remote terrain at King’s Spur, south east of Dartmouth Dam.
DSE Chief Fire Officer Alan Goodwin said the loss of Ms Peters and her colleague was a tragedy.
“This is devastating news and the loss of staff is a tragedy under any circumstances. Even one death is not acceptable. I would like to personally extend my sympathies and DSE’s sympathies to their families and friends.’ Mr Goodwin said
“Our continuing focus is on the safety and wellbeing of our staff, our agency partners – CFA, Parks Victoria and DPI - and interstate and international colleagues (NSW and NZ) who are assisting us to fight fires across the state.’
Support is being offered to his DSE colleagues and senior DSE staff are in Harrietville to provide support and counselling for the crews.
The incident was witnessed by the son of Towong Council deputy mayor David Wortmann.
“My 19-year-old son was in the crew,” Mr Wortmann told ABC Radio on Wednesday.
“The vehicle in front of my son, a tree fell on it and the two firefighters were killed.”
He said the girl, a university student, was from an outstanding family.
“I just felt so sorry for him and his crew to have witnessed and experienced such a tragedy,” he said.
Police say the pair were struck by the falling tree around 3.35pm (AEDT) and it took until after 8pm to reach them because of the fire and hazardous conditions.
Today, flags will be flown at half-mast on Victorian government buildings.
Premier Ted Baillieu says the flags will be lowered as a mark of respect for the pair.
“The tragic loss of these two firefighters will affect all those who have been fighting these fires and protecting Victorian communities,” he said.
“My thoughts and the thoughts of all Victorians are with their families and loved ones at this time.”
Australian Workers Union Victorian secretary Cesar Melhem yesterday said DSE firefighters were “unsung heroes”.
He said there was little recognition of their work as what they did behind fire lines was rarely seen.
“They work in the most horrific conditions imaginable,” he said.
“They work away from the big centres, out in the bush, and with very little recognition for their heroic contribution to this state,” he said.
“They have died heroes, which will be small comfort to those who grieve for them.”
The member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella, last night said she was deeply saddened by the devastating news of the firefighters’ death.
“This is shattering for their family, friends and the community,” Mrs Mirabella said.
“Our prayers and thoughts are with them.”
DSE and CFA firefighters had been making the most of mild weather conditions, working around the clock to control hotspots and build containment lines.
They have faced a continual challenge to get into isolated areas where the fire is burning.
Earlier yesterday, Ovens incident controller Tony Long said crews had had to trek for more than two hours to get to areas to build control lines.
“Where crews can’t walk into the affected areas, we use rappel crews to go down from a hovering helicopter, carrying their gear, to put out hot spots,” he said.
The Harrietville fire has burnt 27,000 hectares since it was started by lightning on January 21.
Mr Long said it would burn until the Alpine region received rain.
The deaths come a month after Peter Cramer, a DSE firefighter and CFA volunteer from Tyers in Gippsland, died working on bushfires in Tasmania.
Mr Cramer, 61, died on January 13 at Taranna, east of Hobart. He was scouting for possible containment lines on the southern boundary of the fire near Forcett.