'It Still Haunts Me': 20 Years On From The Linton Bushfire Tragedy
Matthew Armstrong always wanted to be a firefighter.
He was just 17 years old when he joined the CFA as a volunteer in 1998 and was thrilled to be sent out to his first fire in Linton on December 2.
He never came home.
Matthew was one of five men killed when the Linton fire engulfed the Geelong West tanker, after a disastrous wind change pushed the flames into their path.
Their deaths led to a coronial inquest that forever changed firefighting in Victoria.
Today marks 20 years since the tragedy and this week, the CFA strike force leader who was in charge of the Geelong West crew that fateful day has spoken publicly for the first time.
Simon Scharf was 32 when he and five crews were sent out to the Linton wildfire. It had started as an out-of-control private burn but by the time Simon and his crews were deployed, the wildfire was largely out.
They were sent out to relieve exhausted crews, their job simply to mop up and burn small spot fires to protect the uncharred land. After an hour, two tanks had run out of water. Simon made the decision to send them on to refill, rather than turn back.
That’s when tragedy struck.
“I heard this really loud roar and I thought “what was that?”, Simon recalls.
“The noise was like standing next to a jet engine, it was horrendous.”
The noise was the roar of flames, as the wind picked up and rapidly changed direction, taking with it the raging inferno right into the path of the Geelong and Geelong West tanks.
Simon remembers feeling a tingling sensation move up his legs from the bottom of his feet right up to his stomach, when he realised what had happened: “I’ve just made a decision that’s killed five people.”
The entire Geelong West crew - 17-year-old Matthew Armstrong, 25-year-old Jason Thomas, 27-year-old Chris Evans, 28-year-old Stuart Davidson and 47-year-old Garry Vredeveldt - were killed.
Walking media through the exact path the ill-fated tanks took that day, Simon shivered at a distinct memory.
“One of the guys let out a bellow on realising his mates had died,” he said.
“It still haunts me when I come back here, I still hear that every time.”
Simon Scahrf has never shied away from the sobering fact he was the one who put those men in the path of the flames. Even taking it upon himself to talk to each of the men’s families.
“It was an incredibly tough thing to do, to have to knock on those doors,” he says.
“But as a leader, that’s what I wanted to do.”
The tragedy led to a mammoth coronial inquest, which resulted in huge changes to Victoria’s fire service.
They included the use of a single radio communication channel.
On the day of the Linton fires, three separate channels were in use meaning many messages were never heard, including the message that there was a wind change coming.
The inquest also led to the introduction of mandatory minimum skills training; something Bill Thomas still can’t believe wasn’t already in place.
Bill’s son Jason was killed in the fire. It was the first time he’d ever been on a fire truck in a forest.
“He’d been with the brigade for 12 months,” Bill said. “That would never happen today.”
Family members of those killed regularly meet at the memorial site in Linton, but say this week has been particularly hard.
“People say they understand what you’re going through but they don’t understand,” says Bill. “You can never understand the loss of a child.”
Bill says he is still angry about what happened to his son but he fully supported the coronial inquest and the changes it sparked.
“No one should ever have to go through what we did, and these changes will stop that from ever happening again.”
The families of the victims and members of the CFA are holding a memorial at the Geelong West station today to mark the anniversary.