The wife of an Australia Capital Territory (ACT) [Canberra] firefighter who died in Victoria on Tuesday says he was repaying a debt to those who helped fight the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
David Balfour, 47, from Gilmore in the ACT, was killed by a large tree branch while connecting a hose to his strike team's tanker in the Victoria Fire at Yarra Ranges National Park.
A professional firefighter of 10 years' service with the ACT Fire Brigade, Mr Balfour was part of a team of 120 Canberra firefighters who were on their final shift in Victoria. Celia Balfour said her husband loved the fire brigade and the fire brigade family with whom he worked for 11 years. "David served with distinction in the January 2003 Canberra fire disaster and felt that his deployment to Victoria was repaying a debt of honour to those who had come to our community's aid after our experience with tragedy," Ms Balfour said in a statement.
"The family and I are accepting of the fact that he was doing the best job he could to give back to the community for his fortunate life." Ms Balfour said her husband, to whom she was married for 20 years, was her soul mate and anchor. "He gave us direction as a family and he was very easy-going with simple needs. A good cup of Earl Grey tea, mostly." David is survived by Celia and their three children aged 14, 13 and 10. Before joining the ACT Fire Brigade in 1997, Mr Balfour was an electrician who volunteered for the Rural Fire Service. He is the first member of the ACT brigade to die while on duty. Fellow professional firefighter Ged Morrison says Mr Balfour was a strong family man and devoted father. "His family came first and the fire brigade came second," a clearly upset Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra. He was holding a framed photo of his smiling mate. Mr Balfour always thought of others first and was outgoing and fun-loving, Mr Morrison said. "It was a pleasure and an honour to work beside him." As a professional firefighter, his friend since childhood wouldn't have thought about the dangers, Mr Morrison said. "That's just part and parcel of our job; "This time it was unfortunate for David to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a freak accident." The terrain in Victoria was unknown, difficult and steep, with the constant threat of falling trees, Mr Morrison said. He finished his deployment down south as Mr Balfour was starting his. "It's one of the more dangerous situations I've been in my career."
Battling the 2003 fires in Canberra was a matter of necessity, but heading to Victoria was a choice, Mr Morrison said. "This time David put his hand up for Victoria because he wanted to give a little bit back." Mr Balfour's family are in a state of disbelief and shock, but are being supported by the firefighting family, he said. "We are a brotherhood and we are closely supporting Celia and her family in this great time of need." The 47-year-old was a mentor to junior firefighters and qualified as station officer. He was in line to be promoted when a station officer post next came up. The ACT has sent four taskforces to Victoria in the last 10 days comprising more than 500 professional and volunteer firefighters and support staff. The fourth deployment headed to Victoria on Tuesday, but after news of Mr Balfour's death broke, the ACT Fire Brigade members decided to return to Canberra.
The United Firefighters' Union (UFU) wants brigades to observe a minute's silence to mourn the passing of the Canberra firefighter. The UFU has asked each platoon to observe the silence on Wednesday as crews commence shifts. "Mr Balfour was a well respected elected officer of the United Firefighters' Union, ACT Branch who served his fellow fire-fighters and the community at the highest level," UFU national secretary Peter Marshall said in a statement. "It is extremely sad that a person with such a strong record in promoting community safety has paid the ultimate price for its protection. Meanwhile, authorities say they will learn from the death of the Canberra firefighter.
Ewan Waller, chief fire officer of Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) [Forests] said the death "strikes at the heart of the firefighting fraternity". There will be an investigation into the death, as per common procedure, Mr Waller told media. "We'll take the learning’s from this and they will be applied; "So, even though we have a death, there will be improvements and we will learn from it." He said firefighter safety was paramount. "In the bush setting in particular, falling trees are a hazard and will continue to be a hazard," Mr Waller said. The dead firefighter's crew has already been replaced by a crew of 100 firefighters from the ACT. While some ACT firefighters had chosen not to make the trip, the fresh reinforcements had arrived in Alexandra, near Marysville, to keep working on the fire, Mr Waller said.
Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said the firefighter's death underscored the seriousness of warnings for people to stay away from fire scenes. "We've talked a lot about asking people to stay away from these areas for various reasons, to allow people to grieve and recover and start their rebuilding, but also because it's unsafe," Mr Esplin told reporters. "You're in the way, you don't need to be there, you're affecting emergency services and you're affecting the community, so please stay away." All Victorians are grateful for the support of interstate firefighters, Mr Esplin said.
Russell Rees, Country Fire Authority (CFA) chief officer said Victorians were mourning the death of the ACT firefighter as if he were one of their own. "The very fact we have had a number of injuries and a death means that firefighter safety is something we have to consider in our actions," Mr Rees said. All the ACT firefighters affected had received counselling at the scene and would continue to do so at home, authorities said.