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The History of Firefighting in the Snow

To set the scene of how the fire brigade formed in the Snowy Mountains we are going to take you back to the early 1900s when the area around Mt Kosciusko was evolving as a popular tourist area with a hotel being built nearby in 1909. Tourism continued to grow over the coming decades and in the early 1940s the government was looking at establishing a national park in the area. In 1944 the State Executive Council approved the constitution of a Kosciusko State Park Trust to take over administration. Around this time some sort of fire services were being established with the growing population and accommodation in the post-war era. A Lend-Lease American La France pumper was relinquished by the New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) in 1947 and was reallocated to the Ministry for Tourism and Immigration on behalf of the State Park Trust. In 1967 the area was taken over by the new National Parks and Wildlife Service who maintained its own firefighting division, with the American La France being used until the early 1970s when it suffered an engine failure.

Full view of Hotel Kosciusko, Mount Kosciusko, January 1941. This building was later destroyed by fire [Museum of Fire Collection].
Full view of Hotel Kosciusko, Mount Kosciusko, January 1941. This building was later destroyed by fire [Museum of Fire Collection].

By the 1970s there was an increase in the permanent and holiday population in the Snowy Mountains area which highlighted the need for an organized urban firefighting presence. The National Parks and Wildlife Service began consulting with the Board of Fire Commissioners to establish “Fire Districts” with stations and brigades within the park. “Fire Districts” normally were aligned to local government boundaries which did not apply in National Parks. At the same time Jindabyne, which sat just outside the border of the park, was also added to the program as it was becoming a popular tourist destination.


In 1980 the new Jindabyne Fire District was created along with the establishment of a new station in Jindabyne opening in 1981. For this brand-new station, a four-wheel drive pumper was built to meet the special needs of that district. Two years later a special All-Terrain Tracked Vehicle was purchased for the proposed Perisher Valley Fire District, along with ten Ski-doos and a Caribou trailer.


Even though Perisher Valley and Thredbo had not been brought under the Fire Brigades Act yet, in 1983 volunteer brigades started operating out of temporary premises in Smiggin Holes and Thredbo. The following year both Preisher Valley and Thredbo were brought under the Fire Brigades Act, with a new fire station being completed for Thredbo in 1984 and Perisher Valley in 1985.

Images L to R: Opening of Thredbo Fire Station, 8-9 September 1984, Perisher Valley Fire Station, Opening of Jindabyne Fire Station 21st February 1981 [Museum of Fire Collection].


In the 1990s, permanent firefighters were rotated to Perisher Valley due to a shortage of retained staff. Perisher Valley is staffed over winter, from late May to early October, by permanent firefighters from stations all over Sydney, Newcastle, and Wollongong, who live at the station 24/7 in five-week rotations. They are supported by retained firefighters who live in the local area, and who continue to serve Perisher Valley Fire Station throughout the rest of the year with the back up from Jindabyne Fire Station.


Why are firefighters needed in the snow?

There is actually very little moisture in the air which means any timber components of structures are very dry and would ignite and burn much easier. Another part of the job of a firefighter in the snow is to minimise risks to the pristine alpine environment from incidents and spillages, including dealing with fuel and oil spills due to mechanical issues. Another aspect of what firefighters do in the snow is rescue. With their specialised equipment to get them around the snow fields, they often work alongside the rangers and police in searching for missing people. And of course, they put out fires.

Perisher Valley Open Day, 31 July 2014 [Museum of Fire Collection].
Perisher Valley Open Day, 31 July 2014 [Museum of Fire Collection].

Fire Appliances in the Snow

Not just any ordinary fire appliances can be used in the snow. Standard city fire trucks are replaced with four-wheel drive rescue tankers that can be fitted with chains. The fire appliances used in the snow fields are specially designed to cope with the unique local environment. Ski-doos are a great alternative mode of transport which allow firefighters to travel almost anywhere, including Charlottes Pass and Guthega. Equipped with lights and sirens, firefighters are sent out in pairs with the ski-doos which are often sent out first as scouts before the larger appliances show up like the Hagglund Oversnow Appliance. The Hagglund’s can be used all year round due to the minimal ground pressure they exert, and they carry the same equipment that would be in a standard fire engine. This includes a water tank and high-pressure pump.

Ski-doos outside Perisher Fire Station, c.2000s [Museum of Fire Collection].
Ski-doos outside Perisher Fire Station, c.2000s [Museum of Fire Collection].

How do they stop the above ground fire hydrants from freezing? When turned off, the hydrant’s have a valve which drains the water to approximately 600mm below ground level which is well below the permafrost line in the Snowy Mountains.

Perisher Valley, c. 2000s [Museum of Fire Collection].
Perisher Valley, c. 2000s [Museum of Fire Collection].

- Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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