When Ward Steet, the CEO of Omeo District Health, was told that wind conditions had changed and an approaching fire was now expected to reach Lewington House nursing home from the opposite direction they were expecting it, he made the devastating decision to evacuate. With 14 residents, most in their 80s and 90s and four very frail, he knew it was a significant call.

However, only minutes later, local CFA members reassured him. They said the facility was their “number one priority” and they were confident they could defend it. 

Mr Steet spoke to residents, many of whom had formerly been loggers. None wanted to leave.

So he reversed the decision. “It was the hardest decision in my career,” Mr Steet told HelloCare.

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Chinook helicopter over Omeo District Health conducting evacuation of the relief centre. Source: Ward Steet.

Mr Steet has shared his incredible story with HelloCare. It’s a story of aged care staff working incredibly long hours, of courage, professionalism, and community – and a dog, Jemma, the local chaplain’s dog, who kept residents calm throughout the crisis.

Here is Mr Steet’s story.

Watching and waiting

“On Saturday 4 January, the fires were approaching from the northwest, hidden by Mount Mesley but identifiable through a huge plume of smoke rising above the hill. 

“We had been preparing for the fire front all day and had the support of one CFA strike team. Blackened leaves had been falling from the sky for several hours but they were cool and not hot embers. 

“The smoke plume suddenly split and a wind change had fire racing up the Innisfail ridgeline to the west and appeared to cover 500 metres in about 10 seconds. It then turned south and crossed an area called Mountain Maid to disappear behind smoke and another ridgeline. 

“Within 20 minutes I was informed by the CFA to expect the fire front from behind us rather than from the northwest. The fire had generated its own wind pattern and the winds appeared to be 60-70 km/hour. 

“A spot fire from an ember fall started up about 500 metres from the health service which the CFA quickly extinguished. 

Local evacuations begin

“At this time we had four CFA teams surrounding us and defending the facility with the promise of more if required. During this commotion a Blackhawk helicopter suddenly flew overhead and the CFA asked me if I had been informed that the relief centre was being evacuated.

“Moments later I got a call from the Bairnsdale Incident Control Centre asking if I was going to evacuate the Aged Care Facility.

Do you stay or go?

“After consulting with my staff, in the belief that the whole facility was under severe threat, I made the difficult decision to evacuate.

“We had 40 minutes to get our residents to the relief centre to be loaded onto a Chinook helicopter with medical staff on board. We had 10 ambulatory residents and 4 requiring ambulance stretcher transport. The majority of residents are in their late 80s and early 90s.

“The one ambulance in the region was contacted and they swept into action.

“But two minutes later I received updated information from the CFA that gave me the confidence to cancel the evacuation. 

“The CFA gave assurances that they had additional units that could be made available to defend the health services and that it was the number-one asset priority. They stated with confidence that regardless of how bad the fire storm may be they felt the service was defendable. The confidence of the CFA in their ability to defend the facility made the decision to stay the most sensible one – and it was the correct one.”

Keeping residents calm: a team approach

Mr Street asked residents if they would like to leave or stay. They all opted to stay.

“The staff had been very calm and professional which gave the residents confidence in our ability to keep them safe. One resident stated he was an old forestry guy and said he wasn’t going anywhere!

“Pet therapy, in the form of our organisation chaplain’s dog, Jemma, also helped keep residents calm.

View towards Innisfail ridge from Omeo District Health. Source: Ward Steet.

View towards Innisfail ridge from Omeo District Health. Source: Ward Steet.

“Several hours later the wind stilled, the temperature cooled and the fire threat diminished. It was definitely the hardest decision I have faced in my career to date.

“The main fire front remains about 3 km to the SW of the health service currently.

With the option to evacuate by helicopter, staff chose to stay with residents

“Three nursing staff did a number of 16-hour shifts through this period. 

“All staff were asked if they would like to evacuate out on the helicopters but without exception they all said they wanted to stay and look after the residents. The staff were solid, professional, calm and dedicated to the residents. 

The threat of fire remains

“The fire risk for Omeo is real and is likely to remain for weeks, if not months to come. The community of Omeo all rallied together to defend our precious elderly and ourselves and I am very proud to be a part of this community. 

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about what the coming days and weeks but the spirit of this town, my staff and our residents won’t be shaken by recent events.

“We are more determined to be even better prepared.

“I cannot understate my appreciation of and confidence in the CFA, the Vic Police and the SES for the work they have done and will do to protect the Omeo and District community, the health service and our residents. The fire risk is ever present, but we are prepared for whatever is coming our way.”

Main image: Fires approaching Omeo from behind Mt Mesley. Source: Ward Steet.

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