Leader in fighting bushfires

Leader in fighting bushfires

17 June 2010

published by www.theage.com.au

Australia — VALENTINE Cleary, who was for many years regarded the foremost exponent of managing and controlling large bushfires in Australia, has died of cardiac failure in Shepparton, aged 87.

Widely respected for his enduring public service in protecting and conserving Victoria’s forests, he retired as chief of the division of forest operations in 1983 after three years in the job. Earlier, he had been chief of the division of forest protection from 1967 after spending nine years in Melbourne as a fire research and fire protection officer.

Born in Mildura, he was a resilient child of the Depression and a formidable sportsman. As a Forests Commission Victoria trainee, he gained a diploma from the Victorian School of Forestry in Creswick in 1942, and a BSc, also in forestry, from Melbourne University in 1951.

Forestry graduates of those times were indelibly imprinted with the destruction wrought by the 1939 bushfires; severe criticism by the Stretton Royal Commission that year led to a major change in policy and practice for the protection of Victoria’s forests from wildfire.

Reactive fire control changed to proactive fire management. This recognised that unless fire management, including prevention, suppression and fire ecology, was the core business of the forested land manager, it would not be possible to sustain and conserve all other uses and values of forests for the community.

Cleary’s dedication and leadership over the defining years in achieving these policy and management goals gave Victoria an enviable and internationally recognised reputation in forest fire management.

His experience fitted him well to the roles assigned to him. In March 1950, on board the only helicopter in Australia at that time, an RAAF Sikorsky S-51, he took part in the first use of aircraft for fire suppression work in Australian forest history, over fires in the Jamieson-Howqua valleys near Mansfield.

During the period that he was chief, Cleary and his staff developed close working relations with foresters in the United States through reciprocal fire control study tours. He also introduced the large fire organisation concept for command, control and co-ordination of resources at forest fires in Victoria – pre-dating the incident command system now used for emergency management.

Under his leadership, there was strong interaction between field officers and the division, as well as interagency co-operation. Cleary was a member of the board of the Country Fire Authority from 1967-1980 and was the commission representative on the bushfire sub-committee of the Victorian disaster committee from 1966 to 1980. He led the CFA submission to the Barber Inquiry into the 1977 fires in western Victoria, and went to London to provide expert witness when litigation following those fires went to the Privy Council.

On Ash Wednesday 1983, Cleary and Stan Duncan, each working long shifts, ran the CFA’s operational response to that disaster. He gave expert evidence to the Miller Inquiry following the event.

His unflappable demeanour in a crisis belied the deep empathy that he felt for rural communities in harm’s way each summer. Like many of his profession, he had lived and worked in those communities. He understood that it was the local at the blister-end of a rake-hoe or knapsack who ultimately fought the battle to its bitter, back-breaking end.

Cleary was visiting lecturer in fire protection at the Victorian School of Forestry from 1960 until 1980, noting wryly that the Forests Act was one of the dreariest documents ever devised. An honoured member of the Institute of Foresters Australia, he was made a fellow of the institute in 1981.

Cleary disclaimed the myth that major bushfires are an act of God and climate change – a myth sustained by a simple disregard for the copious quantities of leaves, twigs, branches and bark that every Eucalypt sheds annually.

Four years before the Ash Wednesday fires, he wrote “… the only effective barrier against serious bushfires was an area having considerable depth, where fuel quantities were kept below the threshold level at which high intensity fires could be sustained”.

His professional life exposed him many times to the devastating results of fire, and he grieved over the extensive losses arising from last February’s bushfires in Victoria. To him, that tragedy was a stark reminder that forest fire management is a year-round task central to protecting people’s lives and property and conserving the environment.

Even in his final week, he remained hopeful that the forthcoming Royal Commission report into the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires will result in his successors being given the means to make it so.

Clearly was predeceased by his wife, Peggy (nee Harris) of Mansfield, whom he married in 1947. He is survived by his children Gordon and Susan and grandchildren David, Nicholas and Fiona.

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