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“It was like nothing I had ever seen before.”
Some of WA’s police officers were among many of the heroes that were deployed to assist emergency services in the fireravaged states of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria this summer.
The devastation of the fires, which have claimed the lives of residents, firefighters, volunteers and international aerial firefighters since September, stunned the world.
When the nation thought the worst was over, more fires flared up becoming almost impossible to contain.
More lives were lost.
At the start of January, nine WA police officers were sent over to help.
In order to support the national disaster relief efforts, the Federal Government issued a call out order, Operation Bushfire Assist 2019-2020.
Detective Senior Sergeant Curtis Roe was one of the police officers and defence force reservists sent to effected areas.
The call out focused on various brigades who formed joint taskforces including the 1st Military Police Battalion which is part of the 6th Combat Support Brigade.
Curtis was assigned to the joint taskforce in Victoria and as Company Sergeant Major he was involved in managing the three platoons dispersed across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
His role was managing day-to-day operations, providing advice to the Officer Commanding (OC), supporting the senior non-commissioned officers in the field, managing soldier welfare, discipline, logistics such as stores and equipment and reinforcements coming in and out of the operational areas.
He travelled more than 7,000km across Victoria and into affected areas visiting and supporting soldiers in the field.
“Our soldiers provided support to the joint taskforces so that they can provide assistance to the public authorities who are supporting the communities,” he said.
“We also assisted with evacuation of towns and provided support to the evacuation centres.”
As seen in the media reports from the effected fire areas, the extent of the devastation was heartbreaking and while Curtis had not been exposed to the severity of it, he had experienced firsthand how the communities were impacted.
He said the smoke that blanketed Victoria was shocking.
“I had seen the news prior to deploying as had anyone, but seeing the smoke which stretched as far as the eye could see was extremely sobering when we flew into Victoria. The scale of it was evident right away and I knew we had a massive job ahead,” he said.
He said the work of all the emergency services and local residents was outstanding and he was proud of the officers who have left their normal workplaces, families and loved ones to deploy and assist communities across the country.
“We were all missing our families and loved ones at home, but I can safely say that we were glad to be over there assisting affected communities in any way that we could,” he said.
“To see the scale of it firsthand across all three states was astonishing.
“This is the first time that the reserve force has been called out since the cessation of World War II so it is a moment in history.”
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He said the call out of the army reserve was a good opportunity for the officers to put their skills into practice and utilise the range of skills and experience gained through the WA Police Force.
Other Members deployed included Detective Constable Jayson Connell, Detective Sergeant Bevan Roe, Constable John Burnside, Senior Constable Glenn Wishart, Detective Sergeant Paul McDonagh, Detective Sergeant Michael Mullaley and Detective Constable Rosie Roe.
Aside from the WA police officers, other troops from several services were deployed from their communities to assist in the state emergency disaster.
Firefighters from across the country joined in the fight and the Australian Defence Force sent Army, Navy and Air Force personnel.
American aerial firefighters Ian McBeth, Paul Clyde Hudson and Rick A DeMorgan Jnr were killed in the Snowy Mountains crash in January. Four rural volunteer firefighters also lost their lives in the disastrous conditions.
But in the midst of the devastation and loss, heart-warming moments of humanity rose from the ashes and selfless acts of bravery and extraordinary leadership surfaced.
More than 100,000 volunteer firefighters battled blazes across every state saving countless homes from destruction.
Among them our own heroes who usually don their blues, instead wore their army greens and saw the extent of devastation across multiple communities.
During their time on the fire ground they showed commitment, resilience and bravery and worked around the clock keeping communities safe and calm.
They worked alongside residents who lost everything and they have seen firsthand the devastation.
Jayson and Michael were posted to the “Alpine” area of operations in Victoria. They established and maintained an evacuation centre for affected communities, working with other ADF assets and community support agencies such as Red Cross, Salvation Army and Victoria Police.
A highlight for these officers was being able to provide care and support for those who had lost everything and had come extremely close to losing their lives in the fires.
“As we were operating around the evacuation centres, we were exposed to some incredible stories and were seeing firsthand people coming in with burnt clothing and footwear, showing how close they were to danger,” Jayson said.
They would also help conduct law enforcement patrols in support of Victoria Police, as well as welfare checks within damaged communities.
Curtis said the officers also assisted in traffic management which allowed Victoria Police to spread its force and get some much needed respite.
Officers John and Paul were posted to “Coastal” area of operations in Victoria and assisted with route clearance tasks where dangerous trees were felled.
They were also involved in the evacuation of the town of Marlo which had to be rapidly evacuated due to impending fire danger.
The other WA officers including Glenn Wishart and Rosie Roe and her husband Bevan were deployed to Kangaroo Island in South Australia.
Bevan was the senior military police representative on the island and said while the vast sections of burnt forest, cars and houses was confronting, he was always amazed by the community’s positivity.
“Wherever we went people from the community were so happy to see us. They would come and shake hands and thank us for helping,” he said.
“On one occasion local children brought us biscuits they had made.”
Rosie said she assisted South Australia Police with joint tasks and assisting with movements of personnel.
“We were occasionally tasked to attend incidents or jobs much like one would in general duties as a police officer including checking road blocks, patrolling to deter looters, responding to reports of spot fires and assisting locals with any queries,” she said.
She said the images and videos of the devastation the fires left in their wake was nothing in comparison to seeing it firsthand.
“I would say that the images and videos we are seeing on social media in no way do the actual experience justice. It is so much more devastating to witness firsthand,” she said.
“The people on Kangaroo Island have a significant amount of pride and from what I could see, they would largely be putting their focus on rebuilding. A huge amount of sorrow was expressed and felt for the significant loss of animal life and I have to say that was certainly tragic.”
They also visited some furry friends at a koala rehabilitation centre at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park which Rosie said was a highlight of her time over there and her first time seeing a koala.
“Seeing the animals and assisting them was the most rewarding and yet sad experience. It was a highlight for sure but also very sad to see them like that,” she said.
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Curtis said all of the officers who were deployed represented the WA Police Force in an extremely positive light.
“The skills, qualifications and experience learnt from being in the WA Police Force assisted our Members to perform outstandingly on this operation,” he said.
“It’s been great to hear that most supervisors and managers have been extremely supportive of our Members deploying at extremely short notice.
“I am attached to the Homicide Squad, an extremely dynamic and busy unit, yet my superintendent, inspector and OIC were extremely supportive.”
Paul McDonagh also told Police News how grateful he was of the support he had received prior and during his deployment.
“The support has been phenomenal from back home. I received calls from my district office and OIC who checked in and offered support. They also offered me the ability to take annual leave to recuperate and spend time with my family when I returned,” he said.
“I also spoke with WA Police Union President Harry Arnott who wished us luck and made sure we knew if there was anything we needed to give him a call.”
Curtis said all officers who were called out for the deployment should be proud of their efforts.
“Some Members left wives with small children at home, struggling without partner support, whilst others were away from their heavily pregnant partners,” he said.
The officers are likely to be recognised with the National Emergency Medal which the Federal Government has pledged will be awarded to members of emergency services, volunteers and the ADF in support of the bushfire crisis.
The 1st Military Police Battalion is currently seeking serving or former state police officers to join its ranks. 7 Platoon of C Company in Perth has a number of vacancies.
Curtis said WA police officers who wish to join the Army Reserves can contact him at curtis.roe@defence.gov.au.
By Jessica Cuthbert