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French Island: A big fire, a small community and a fire truck from eBay

On an island where there’s no power, no main roads, no main water supply and no sewerage, the locals have learned to fend for themselves, and it’s that know-how that helped in the effort to save French Island from a bushfire “worst-case scenario”.

“You could relate French Island to rural Victoria 150 years ago,” said Keith Airs, captain of the French Island brigade.

Mr Airs fought the blaze until late into Saturday night and described the scene at its worst as a “great big ball of smoke”.

“The dry fuel [was] going like mad,” he said.

Residents were told to leave their homes and campers evacuated from walking trails as the blaze ripped through about 87 hectares of national park, which is a haven for chlamydia-free koalas.

Locals said on Sunday aerial fighting efforts prevented major property damage, as ground support tankers arrived painfully slowly from the mainland by barge.

“It’s very typical of French Island, we come out of the woodwork. Whenever big fires happen here we’re aware we’ve got very little resources. Everyone just comes from left, right and centre and they just work together,” said Linda Bowden, first lieutenant of the French Island CFA brigade.

French Island's Glenn Seymour: Fought flames with a fire truck he bought on eBay.

French Island’s Glenn Seymour: Fought flames with a fire truck he bought on eBay.Credit:Nine News

The French Island CFA believes Saturday’s blaze was started by a lightning strike on Wednesday.

“It probably smouldered for two or three days until the wind swung around to the east and it just went up,” said Mr Airs.

“Most of the canopy is still intact, it’s mainly the ground that is burnt right through – two-thirds of the way up trees.”

A massive effort from local firefighters, neighbours and mainland crews from Dalyston, San Remo, Grantville, Kernot, Wonthaggi, Hastings and Bass firefighting groups and aerial equipment helped avoid major property damage.

Authorities were spending Sunday blacking out the perimeter of the fire.

Mr Seymour lost a workshop just metres from his weatherboard home. Inside and nearby were classic car parts, tyres and his beloved Holden LC Torana.

Prepared for the fire to move away from their property, Mr Seymour and his wife, Paula, were caught off-guard by a wind change late in the afternoon.

Mr Seymour was fighting the fire in a different location when the call came through that his own home was directly in the blaze’s path.

By the time he returned with a filled tanker, his shed and cars were “well and truly ablaze”.

Jenny Lewis found this Koala mother and her baby on Causeway Road, last night. Healthy and safe, the pair had crawled out of the National Park ahead of the fire front.

Jenny Lewis found this Koala mother and her baby on Causeway Road, last night. Healthy and safe, the pair had crawled out of the National Park ahead of the fire front. Credit:Jenny Lewis

KOALA FEARS

French Island is Victoria’s largest island and is only accessible via the barge or a passenger ferry that run from the Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island.

The island is known for its strong koala population, which is sometimes used to repopulate other areas because of its chlamydia-free status.

As the fire broke out on Saturday, fears were raised of an inferno on the scale of the recent Kangaroo Island blaze, which killed thousands of koalas.

“What ran through my head is the response, ‘we’re not going to have another big incident like [Kangaroo Island]’,” said Lieutenant Bowden.

Much of the koala population lives on the island’s densely forested north-east, away from the fire area, but Lieutenant Bowden said some koalas had been affected and would be taken to the mainland for treatment.

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“The response was so quick, we had the least impact to wildlife as possible. This was a close one”.

Farmers Steve and Jenny Lewis came close to seeing their acreage up in smoke, with the fire stopping just along the fence line of their Causeway Road property.

“You can’t image how fierce that fire was yesterday,” said Mrs Lewis. “It was surreal, like a movie.”

While extinguishing spot fires on the farm boundary, the couple found koalas emerging from the scorched national park just across the road.

ISOLATION DANGERS

In the wake of the close call, some locals have questioned the amount of firefighting resources available on the island.

“The distance is the danger. The distance between the prison farm to Tankerton pier where our main access point is, that’s the same distance between Stony Point and Frankston,” said Captain Airs.

Keith Airs, Captain of the French Island rural Fire brigade.

Keith Airs, Captain of the French Island rural Fire brigade. Credit:Rachael Dexter

Lieutenant Bowden said the local brigade had 40 members, out of a population of around 100 residents.

“We’re like any other brigade, it’s ageing. We need young people to come through”.

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