Community rocked by death of 'farm girl' firefighter

KATIE Peters was a ''farm girl'' from north-east Victoria who had already seen a lot of the world. Like many of today's young people, the 19-year-old had travelled overseas after finishing school, including working at a summer camp in Canada for six months. Down the track, she planned to become a vet.

But for now, she loved her time as a project firefighter working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment. It was her first paid job.

Katie's colleague was only a few years older, a 29-year-old man from Corryong described as a dedicated and highly valued firefighter. He is yet to be officially named.

The young country firefighters, who have been highly praised by DSE management, died together on Wednesday afternoon in a remote bush tragedy, after their vehicle was struck by a falling tree. They are the third and fourth Victorian firefighters to die this fire season.

Katie was a ''project firefighter'' with the DSE, which meant she was hired to work as a firefighter through summer. It was her second season as a member of the ''summer crew''.

In a moving statement released on Thursday, her family described a young woman who was loved by her family and friends.

''Katie grew up on a dairy farm in Tallandoon, in the Mitta Valley, and is the second youngest of five children. She has two sisters and brothers who adore her. She was a happy, caring and genuine 'farm girl' who had a great sense of humour,'' the family said.

''Her interest in veterinary science stemmed from her love of animals, especially horses. Her family remembers even from a young age having to call her in from the bush at dusk to return home for dinner. She had been in the bush riding her horse, often with her dog and cat in tow,'' the family said.

''Katie will always be held in the hearts of those who knew her.''

Katie had attended Eskdale Primary School, and later Tallangatta Secondary College where she completed VCE in 2011. She was the school's sports captain and school vice-captain.

Tallangatta Secondary College principal Alby Freijah said Katie was an all-rounder who excelled academically and represented the school at inter-school and state sport events.

''Katie was just a delightful student and well respected and well liked by everyone in the school community and by students of all ages,'' he said.

Gutted firefighting leaders were left devastated by the loss of the young pair. DSE chief fire officer Alan Goodwin said the two were part of a taskforce that was fighting an edge of the Alpine/Harrietville fire when the incident occurred about 3.30pm on Wednesday on Pheasant Creek Track.

''As the chief fire officer it is heart-wrenching to stand here today and describe the loss that we suffer,'' he said. He described Katie as a willing and enthusiastic firefighter who was loved by her colleagues. ''Katie was always prepared to have a go, and was the first one to put up her hand to drive a tanker or use a chainsaw. She made time for everyone, she loved working with her mates and was incredibly down to earth,'' he said.

''The death of any firefighter is tragic, to lose young dedicated people out there doing their jobs is especially so. The loss of staff is a tragedy under any circumstances. Any death is unacceptable and I would like to personally extend my sympathies and the sympathies of DSE to both families and friends. Our thoughts and support are with them,'' he said.

Pheasant Creek Track, the scene of the incident, is in the upper reaches of the Buckland River, about 12 kilometres south-west of Harrietville. It is on the north side of the Great Divide.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the deaths would have a wide-reaching effect across the state. ''It brings a hollow feeling to anyone … It's a significant loss for Victoria,'' he said.

Mr Lapsley said he believed Victorian firefighters operated under good safety systems.

Police are investigating the deaths on behalf of the coroner. WorkSafe began an investigation on Thursday.

With JARED LYNCH

The story Community rocked by death of 'farm girl' firefighter first appeared on The Age.

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