Richard van Iersel recalls the surreal feeling of driving Transdev’s Route 906 service through the familiar streets of Bulleen and Doncaster, before volunteering to head off into the “middle of mayhem” fighting the bushfires that ravaged East Gippsland this summer.
The Transdev Melbourne Doncaster driver and member of the Emerald CFA brigade was part of strike team 1313 which was dispatched to areas around Buchan and Swan Reach.
The team worked closely with forest fire management, working to protect and support crews fighting the big fire near Omeo by creating containment lines.
The main fire front travelled 26 kilometres per night, and Richard described the noise as a constant gentle humming increasing to the roar of a V8 engine as the fire approached.
“There were no flies in the air and no animals anywhere. The devastation of the fires was soul destroying.
“As we travelled the roads, people flagged us down to give us a hug and say thanks. The people we came across looked stunned; they had lost everything, and one bloke even asked me for toiletries. We gave them whatever we had on board - our water, our ration packs, whatever we could.”
A CFA member for 22 years, this was Richard’s sixth fire campaign, having also fought the Black Saturday fires. In 2013 he was awarded an Australian Emergency Medal for his efforts.
Richard took leave from his role as a driver to fight the fires as part of Transdev’s special leave policy which allowed on-duty active CFA or RFS firefighter volunteers to take leave with full pay.
“I would have gone to fight the fires no matter what, but it makes a massive difference to know I had the support of the company behind me and a job to come back to. You certainly sleep a lot easier when you know you are being paid.”
Transdev Australasia also donated $30 000 to the Australian Red Cross, with Transdev Melbourne staff raising an additional $6000 which was donated to the Victorian Premier’s Bushfire Appeal Fund.
Richard says the community response to the teams of firefights is heartening, but he encourages Australians to not simply forget about the bushfire affected communities, saying, “Money is the best thing to give because it means people can buy what they need. People should visit local communities when it is safe to do so as it gets money into the local areas and gets morale up – which is really needed after this summer.”
For Richard, the reward from volunteering with the CFA is being able to help someone who needs it, and he believes in the power of many, saying “No one person can conquer something as huge as what happened this summer, but an army of people can make a difference.”
James Ellison, Robert Forster and Brendan Rosenbrock from Transdev’s Doncaster depot also fought bushfires over this summer. Transdev Melbourne is incredibly proud of their service to the Victorian community.