Australia — When senior ranger Mike Lauder and his crew went to rescue 19 campers, including nine young children, trapped by the deadly raging bushfires on Victoria’s Black Saturday, he put an escape plan into action.
The 54-year-old, who lives in Mandurah, told his crew to drive their vehicles into the nearby Murrindindi River, put the children inside the trucks and cover the vehicles in wet towels.
The crew sprayed the vehicles as the adults crouched in the water.
The efforts of Mr Lauder and his crew, who were awarded an Australian Government group bravery citation, enabled them to survive the fatal fires.
Mr Lauder, who works for Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, told how conditions on February 7, 2009, filled him with foreboding.
“I’d been to many, many fires over the years but nothing like that,” he said. “After 13 years of drought, anything that happened that day was not going to be pretty.”
That morning, Mr Lauder visited the campers at the Murrindindi scenic reserve to ensure they obeyed a total fire ban.
As a senior ranger in Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment, he dispatched one crew to Kinglake, where six people were killed.
When he received the call about a fire at Murrindindi at 3pm, Mr Lauder and his crew were first on the scene.
“It was horrific,” he said. “When I took the crew in there, I basically knew we’d end up being trapped because the fire was heading our way. It was right behind us.
“I knew the river because I worked there for many years. I’ve always thought, if something happened like that, I’d use the river.
“The campers came out and we met them but it was too late. The fire was already behind us.
“We had no choice, so we took all the campers down to the river.
“We were spraying water from the pumps all over the vehicles. Adults were in the river up to our knees. It was a shallow river. When the fire came across, we just got close to the water. We had trouble breathing but we survived.”
Two of the crew were hospitalised with smoke inhalation. Mr Lauder said he was honoured that his crew was recognised and proud of the way it responded and trusted his do-or-die call that day.