SATURDAY FOCUS: Peter Farrell

Department of Environment and Primary Industries' Peter Farrell is retiring after 40 years. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

Department of Environment and Primary Industries' Peter Farrell is retiring after 40 years. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

FIVE years on the enormity of Black Saturday still pulls Peter Farrell up short.

He was one of the bosses in charge of the North East’s fire response.

It was clear early that February 7 that it was going to be a dreadful day — a lung-sucking heat soaring by the hour, belted along by wild, shifting winds.

“We thought we were well set-up — or as set-up as well as well as we could be — leading into that day,” the 61-year recalled this week.

“I remember going down to Benalla that morning and thinking ‘what’s going to happen, how bad is it going to be?’.”

Black Saturday — on which 173 people died, mainly in Victoria’s south — stands out from his four decades with what is now know as the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

Another is the terrible events of Harrietville four years later, when two young firefighters under his charge died.

Katie Peters, 19, of Tallandoon, and Steven Kadar, 34, of Corryong, lost their lives on February 13 last year when a tree crushed their vehicle.

They had been among department crews fighting the Harrietville blaze that eventually destroyed 37,000 hectares as it burned for 55 days. It was sparked by lightning on January 21.

The day after their deaths, Mr Farrell — by now the department’s Hume regional manager — visited the firefighters’ families.

“That was the hardest day of my life,” the 61-year-old father of three adult sons says, his emotions making it hard to say much more.

“Their loss was just terrible, for the families.”

“It was almost like a marathon,” Farrell says of 2003, of the long hours and the “crazy” 59 days fire crews spent battling the blazes.

HIS carefree days as a boy set the scene for Peter Farrell’s career, which comes to an end next Friday.

He was a Scout and regularly went on hikes and camping trips in the bush.

One day a Scouts mate asked him if he had heard about “this thing called forestry”.

Mr Farrell hadn’t, so he did some research and found out there was a forestry course at a place called Creswick — and again, he had never heard of the town.

Nevertheless, he successfully applied for the course and began studying in 1971.

His Diploma of Foresty under his belt, he joined the commission as a forest officer in 1974.

Those early years for recruits were spent being shifted around the state by their bosses in Melbourne, “like pawns on a chess board”.

Eventually though he moved into a research role that continued for nine years, including four years looking at the impact of timber harvesting on water quality.

He feels especially fortunate for being able to do so many jobs with the department and its forerunners over the years.

“It doesn’t feel like 40 years because I’ve just enjoyed it so much,” he says.

“It’s not like being locked into the one job for your whole life.”

He started off in research and had time working in catchment management dealing with salinity and water quality.

That led to roles in fire and public land management and then ultimately, his final job as regional director.

IT was in late 1986 that he and his wife, Rosemary, made the move.

He had got a taste for the North East during a research project a few years earlier and it was enough to convince him it was where he wanted to be.

“It’s just a great landscape. You’ve got the alps through to the red gum forests like Barmah.”

What has really made it work though is his fellow department workers.

“They’re very passionate, they’re very committed, they’re very community-based people.”

Ultimately, he says, that is what he has most enjoyed.

“And once you make a home in your own particular community — I live in Milawa — you become involved.”

Mr Farrell doesn’t hesitate in accepting the past 10 years have been his toughest — there was the 2003 Alpine fires, the 2006-07 blazes and then, of course, Black Saturday and Harrietville.

“It was almost like a marathon,” he says of 2003, remembering clearly the long hours and the “crazy” 59 days fire crews spent battling the blazes.

What stood out with each of the fires is the strong support from communities during the heat of battle.

“But once the fires are out and the dust settles people ask questions, which is fair enough,” he says.

“That’s when it does become a bit tough, because sometimes there can be unfair things that are said.”

“Our people live in the communities they’re trying to protect as well. It can be pretty uncomfortable for them.”

TWO people died in the Beechworth blaze on Black Saturday that ripped through 323 square kilometres of forest and farmland.

It might seem the region got off relatively unscathed, but Peter Farrell says that does not make the impact less tragic.

Any loss of life, he says, is a heavy toll for family, for rural communities.

“I can remember my wife said when I got home that I just looked white as a ghost.” - PETER FARRELL

Mr Farrell was the Hume regional fire controller that day. He reckons it was about 11am that they first heard about the Kilmore East fire, which killed 119 people.

Reports kept coming in about fires breaking out elsewhere — the pressure was mounting as the department’s resources were spread thin.

He admitted to the bushfire royal commission that if a major fire broke out that day they would have to operate two makeshift, “mean and lean”, teams of 15 each compared with the normal crew of up to 70 people.

Resources on Black Saturday were compromised by a fire in the upper Murray at the Nariel ski hut, while several staff had to be send to help with the fires at Kilmore and Murrindindi that afternoon.

“We were getting very stretched with people at that point in time,” he says.

“And then the Beechworth fire started at 6 o’clock and I thought ‘oh no, which way do we look?’.”

He went home about 10 or 11pm after handing over to the night co-ordinator. Then came a phone call about an ultimately unfounded story of 30 people dying in a building down Kinglake way.

“I can remember my wife said when I got home that I just looked white as a ghost,” he says.

“The other thing I did on that day was I actually asked people to do things beyond their training and capability because I nowhere else to turn.

“They all stood up and did a great job.”

A HIGHLIGHT of the past few years has been the “significant increase” in planned burning.

While he is pleased to have left that legacy, Mr Farrell is more than content to move on.

“The 40 years have flown,” he says.

“But having said that I’ve reached a point in my life where it’s time for a change and I’m very happy about it.”

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