An unusually dry spring in 1961 preceded a summer of scorching weather and tinder-dry vegetation. Strong northerlies and soaring temperatures were experienced on the morning of Sunday 14th January 1962, when a fire broke out in the ravine area of The Basin. In combination with another outbreak, which had started to the north of the range, this fire burned during three days of appalling weather, before it could be checked. The western face of the Dandenongs, from Montrose to Ferntree Gully, was swept by the fire, which also extended to Belgrave, Kallista and Monbulk.
This extended operation, and the mopping-up work, which was to continue for days afterwards, severely taxed the Brigade’s personnel and resources, and placed heavy demands on the members of the Ladies’ Committee who had the responsibility of providing food for fire crews arriving from distant parts of Victoria.
Resident Officer Jim Walker was elected Captain following Jim Dinsdale’s appointment as Regional Officer in July 1962. Jim Walker had joined the Brigade in 1958 and was appointed as the first Resident Officer in April 1959. His term of office was to be cut short when he, too, was appointed to the Authority staff in September. Taking up duty as a permanent firefighter, Jim was subsequently promoted as Station Officer.
With their appointments, these officers became the first of a number of members who, in the years to come, joined the permanent staff after serving all or part of their term as volunteer fire fighters at Ferntree Gully.
These men were to go on to occupy senior and responsible positions in the Service.
Following Captain Walker’s departure, Ray Parker was re-elected the post he had vacated some four years earlier. He was to serve as Captain for a further nine years until his other commitments compelled him to stand down.
During the preceding few years, the development of the town had proceeded at a remarkable rate, especially in the western sector where large tracts of former pasture and market gardens were subdivided into housing estates. Keeping pace with this residential expansion, a number of light industries were established in the town, some of them being quite large manufacturing plants. These developments increased considerably the work and responsibilities of the Brigade, and more and more time had to be devoted to the intensive training of firefighters, particularly in connect on with the new industrial risks they would be likely to encounter.
It was these risks that prompted the Brigade in 1963 to purchase its first set of compressed air breathing apparatus, an innovative move that attracted considerable interest among local brigades.
Improvements were also being made to the fire station: the side driveway was surfaced and the first of a series of brick retaining walls was erected in 1964, and an extinguisher service bay was created by surfacing the area immediately behind the building. The old telegraph pole on which the hose was winched for drying was considered to be out of keeping with the Brigade’s progressive thinking, and with the aid of some skilled axe work it mysteriously collapsed one Sunday morning. The Authority was promptly informed that the pole had “fallen down” and enquiries were made as to a replacement. The end result was that the existing siren tower at the driveway entrance was increased in height by the addition of a broader base to allow it to be used as a hose tower. The fact that the whole structure leaned slightly to the northwest was either denied emphatically, or claimed to have been intentional in that it counteracted the weight of the hose.
After a series of meetings and discussions, the Brigades in the recently created Shire of Knox combined in April 1965 to form a separate group organisation. Under the leadership of Captain Laurie Maguire of Boronia and his Deputy, Captain Ray Parker, the member brigades of the Knox Fire Brigades Group worked to develop the operational procedures, which would enable it to function as a cohesive force.
John Fitzpatrick, the first Communications Officer, established the new Group’s headquarters at Ferntree Gully. He utilised the small radio room, which until its conversion in 1963, had been used as a Brigade store. In 1967 radio coverage of the Group area was improved with the installation of a remote base station on the MMBW property at Wantirna, and its connection to the headquarters by landline.
In July 1967, the Brigade celebrated 25 years of service, and members were fitted out for the occasion in the new style dress uniforms. The old double-breasted blue serge jackets, which had survived practically unchanged since the inception of the old Fire Brigades Board in 1891, were retained as turnout coats.
By 1967, the Brigade had reconciled itself to the need for the replacement of the GMC tanker, which was reaching the end of its economical and operational life. In June of that year the Brigade with an offer to subsidise the cost of an International C1600 series four-wheel drive tanker approached the Authority. Negotiations on the subject were to become rather protracted, and in the interim the Authority offered the loan of an old tanker for the approaching fire danger period.
Prior to Christmas 1967, the Brigade decided to complement its fire danger period fire prevention campaign with a tour of the town by Father Christmas who would distribute balloons, comics, fire prevention literature and general goodwill to the small fry. So popular was this venture that it is now a firmly established annual tradition, and has been adopted by other brigades in the district.
Another dry winter and spring in 1967 heralded the approach of a particularly hazardous fire danger period. A series of fires in the hills, many of them deliberately lit, kept all brigades in the area constant at work from as early as November.
Monday, 19th February 1968, brought extremes of wind velocity and temperature, and a fire breaking out that afternoon in The Basin raged through the National Park towards Tremont, Upper Ferntree Gully and Upwey. A concerted effort by all sections of the Service, aided by the close co-operation of other emergency services, succeeded, despite the appalling conditions, in checking the spread of the fire within a few hours of nightfall. The intensity of the fire, however, and the absence of any rain compelled the local brigades to maintain blacking-out and patrol work for another six days before the fire areas could be considered safe, and our personnel withdrawn. Quite a number of homes were destroyed in this fire, especially in those streets between the Devil’s Elbow and the Monbulk Road.
A casualty of this fire was the old GMC tanker, which having been in the thick of the battle from the outset, finally broke down and had to limp home on its front wheel drive to the station where it was condemned to the back yard until it was eventually sold. Quite apart from the fact that it had been a good workhorse, the “Gimmy” attracted significant sentimental attachment from the Brigade members who had toiled with maintenance, repair and modifications that kept the truck operational, and who had worked day and night on those “water runs” that financed the petrol to keep the tanker on the road. To mark its demise after eleven years of sterling service, the old tanker was “paid off” in true naval fashion, “dressed overall with pennants flying and drums beating” and numerous toasts in rum.
In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of June 1968, Captain Ray Parker was awarded the British Empire Medal in recognition of his overall service, and in particular for his leadership as Group Officer, Knox, during the protracted operations of the preceding summer.
Negotiations on the matter of a replacement tanker continued, and the Authority approved an arrangement under which the Brigade would contribute by instalments towards the cost of a unit. And so an International C1650 series short wheelbase tanker, carrying a 600-gallon payload, was placed in service with the Brigade in December 1968. Twelve months later, the original Grazcos pump was replaced at Brigade expense with a larger capacity Volkswagen Godiva unit.
Within a few months of the tanker’s arrival, the Austin appliance was replaced with an International front-mounted pumper.
May 1969 saw the conversion of the old Ferntree Gully manual telephone exchange to automatic operation, and with it the installation of the Brigade’s fire reporting system with its associated bell alarms.
The Brigade’s Fire Prevention Week activities were expanded in 1970 to include a visit to the primary schools with the fire appliances and, with poster competitions for the children; these visits became annual events for a number of years.