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Origins of the Heathcote/Headquarters Bushfire Brigade

When we look back to who started the Heathcote Bush Fire Brigade, we should take into account that the year 1942 saw a complex and tense society living in Australia, under the backdrop of the war.

With the entry of Japan into the war, there was a real fear of the threat of an invasion of Australia. Through the National Security Act (1939), the government put Australia on a war footing and during 1942 civilians were evacuated south in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory and Australians were put under greater government controls than at any time since the convict era.

The Shire’s Council stepped up emergency planning with a blackout, construction of air raid shelters and trenches, the removal of all signs and name posts (including covering the word Sutherland on the Council Chambers with galvanized iron), the building of tank traps on the beachs and measures to counter incendiary bombs among but a few.

Fire Fighters in the Royal National Park 1940's



The incendiary bombs were of particular concern, as NSW had been in the grips of a drought for some time with frequent outbreaks of bush fires. The concern was the enemy could exploit the high fire danger which existed in the bush at the time by dropping incendiary bombs to disrute the war effort or as a precusor to an invasion.

The Council therefore directed in 1942, that Bush Fire Brigades be formed as an urgent measure at Sutherland, Menai, Miranda, Heathcote, Waterfall, Audley and Bundeena and in 1943 reported that the following brigades had been formed under the Bush and Rural Fire Prevention Order.

Brigade 1943


S. H. Stringer
G. J. Knox
W. Bower
S. Cooper
J Mayman

That is not to say that less formal arrangements were not already in place. Generally though, before the Brigades creation it was left to the police, national park superintendent or council to rally the locals or whatever soldiers were on hand at the Loftus Encampment. However, as equipment and training for the volunteers was limited, the fires were very difficult to contain and more often than not re-ignition was a problem due to the inability to black out the fire.


History of Heathcote Bushfire Brigade

As told to journalist, Joan Thompson, by Fire Control Officer Ray Watchorn, September 1975, and with excerpts the book “From Bottle Forest to Heathcote” by Patrick Kennedy 


Ray Watchorn, born in Paddington in 1911, moved to Heathcote, almost accidentally in 1942. Returning from a holiday at Thirroul, he and his wife Dot noticed some land for sale, and bought it with all £10 deposit.He installed his wife and children in a tent, and later went back to Kogarah and sold out his plumbing business - then established another plumbing business in Heathcote.The family lived in tents for several years and for the first time in their lives, saw a bush fire – when it actually burnt across part of their land, during the summer of 1943- 44. Unlike today, there was little bushfire protection so Ray set about forming the Heathcote Bushfire Brigade to serve the community. With the assistance of other dedicated members of the local community, he achieved this in 1944. He was the secretary until the first annual meeting when he was elected captain. Before this, there was some limited and less formal protection under Captain Frank (Pop) Cooper.

Jack Loveday, who moved to Heathcote in 1951 after marrying his wife Kath in 1949, worked under every captain of the Heathcote Bushfire Brigade during the 1950s and 1960s. Jack described Ray Watchorn as a fantastic bloke who would do anything for the local community.

Ray could do anything he put his mind to. He was methodical and a perfectionist. I worked with Ray as a brigade member of the Heathcote Bushfire Brigade and then for 14 years as deputy captain with every other captain of the Brigade after him up to Keith Campbell.

‘We all put in some long hours at our station which was at the top of the hill in Bottle Forest Road. It began operations in about 1958. In the 1950s, we fought fires using only knapsacks. Before the station opened we would hold our meetings in people’s homes, the waiting room at the railway and in ‘Dolby’s Barn at the back of the Dolby family’s general store. Vince Morris and Ray Watchorn helped to keep us all organised and focussed on our various tasks. They were very good times.

He was captain of Heathcote brigade until 1952 when he became the Shire’s first Group Captain. A major bushfire destroyed some twelve homes and hundreds of livestock in Engadine that year, and even though there were seven brigades in the shire, there was no real co-ordination of their activities. As a result of that catastrophe, Ray approached the Shire Clerk and proposed forming a Bushfire Advisory Committee. This was approved, and new brigades were formed and their areas of responsibility established.

Ray was the inspiration which saw a decade of big advances from 1950 to 1960 where, aided by the Bushfire Advisory Committee, improvements were made in workers’ compensation, amendments to the Bushfires Act, improved pumping equipment, canvas hose, knapsacks and hand tools. These improvements benefited not only the Shire, but in many instances, the whole State of NSW. Radio equipment was tested in July 1957, and introduced shortly afterwards.

A base station was established in a small annex attached to Ray’s home and overall control of fires was organised from that location until 1974, when it was transferred to an old cottage on the site of the current Fire Control Centre.

In October 1965, Ray was appointed by Council as a full-time Fire Control Officer after twenty years service as a dedicated volunteer. He continued as FCO until his retirement in 1976.

Ray died on the 11th January 1989 after a long illness. In honour of his achievements and the regard his fellow fire fighters held him in, the Sutherland Fire Control Centre was renamed after him, along with fire boats from Woronora Brigade.


Ray Watchorn around 1954 with his son Joe, who was about four years old, on the bonnet of Ray’s 1949 Willy’s jeep.










History of the Headquarters Bushfire Brigade

Thanks to Martyn Kiellor for this information.


The Brigade was constituted in 1974 although Headquarters had existed for a lot longer (sometime in the mid 60s). The members came from support roles originally, i.e. Bob Mol was the Shire mechanic, Alan Court was the Shire first aid officer, Jack Loveday was the trails officer etc.

Most of the members that formed the fire fighting crew came from what was then the Heathcote State Park Rescue crew under the Ranger John Sommerlad. (These included, John Farley, Mick Beltran, Mick McLeod and Martyn Kiellor) Lindsey Johnstone was Bob Mols apprentice so I am assuming that is how he got involved).

There was an AGM held in 1974 but Ray Watchorn (the FCO at the time) wouldn't allow a Captain or Senior Deputy Captain to be appointed so Headquarters started out with 3 Deputy Captains.
A 'proper' AGM was held the following year when Lindsay Johnstone was elected Captain and Martyn Kiellor SDC.

The brigade was originally formed as a support brigade for the Shire brigades and they used to provide fuel, operate the Fire Control Centre, radio communications, assist with feeding as well as operate the district spare vehicle. Eventually the firefighting role became more prominent together with the bulk water carrier which we got around 1976? (Certainly prior to 1977) as well as the fuel vehicle again around 77/78 although we had been operating a tray back land rover with 44 gallon drums on the back (very OH&S conscious).

Headquaters Station 1982 © Photo A Kiellor

1973 Field Day
M Kiellor, C Horgan, A Clarke, C Williams,
M Beltran, S Sims.
© Photo M Kiellor

 HQ members 1973 Mick McLeod, Mick Beltran, Kim Beltran, John Farley © Photo M Kiellor

HQ members 1973
Mick McLeod, Mick Beltran, Kim Beltran, John Farley
© Photo M Kiellor


The Headquarters station was built during 1975 and we moved in during the fires in Nov 1975, (albeit sans power) with 5 of the 7 bays having no concrete on the floor.

Even when the SES took over the station and brigade moved out in 2000 and into the new station, some bays still had no concrete.

On the 3rd November 1980 the brigade was responded to a fire east of the Waterfall Township in an area of difficult access. The Headquarters 1081 vehicle was caught on the Uloola track by a finger of the fire whilst travelling into the Fireground. This resulted in the death of the 5 crew and the loss of the vehicle.

In 1987, the Brigade was amalgamated with the Heathcote Bushfire Brigade to become the Heathcote Headquarters Bushfire Brigade. The main reason given by the FCO of the time for the amalgamation was cost, it was suggested they would save $180,000 a year. ‘Having two Brigades within one kilometre of each other is a bit odd'.




History of the Heathcote/Headquarters Bushfire Brigade

The Heathcote / Headquarters Bush Fire Brigade was formed in June 1987 as a result of the merger of two brigades that were located in the Heathcote township.

  •  The Heathcote Brigade had been formed in 1942/43 as a Bushfire Brigade to protect the local community and operated out of the station located on Bottleforest Road.
  • The Headquarters Brigade was formed in 1974 as a support brigade for the Sutherland Shire Bushfire Organisation and operated out of the station located at Wilson Parade (now home to the SES).

 The Headquarters Brigade operated throughout the Sutherland Shire initially using:

  • A 1967 RLHC 4×4 Bedford tanker of 3000 litre capacity

  • A 1944 Studebaker 6×6 (bulk water carrier) of 6800 litre capacity
    (This vehicle over its life time was subjected to many modifications and changes to its setup to enable it to better meet the needs of the organisation).

  • A Willy’s FC-170 jeep ( as a fuelling vehicle )

  • A series 2 Landrover table top

     1967 RLHC 4×4 Bedford tanker1944 StudebakerWilly’s FC-170Landrover table top


The Heathcote Brigade operated (1974) using:

  • A 1967 RLHC 4×4 Bedford
  • A 1942 Chev “Blitz” t
  • A series 2 Landrover Hardtop

The Heathcote Blitz was replaced in the mid ’70s with an MFR series Bedford and the Landrover was replaced with a Toyota Landcruiser, the period that followed was one of very high fire activity.

A 1942 Chev “Blitz”1967 RLHC 4×4 BedfordLandrover HardtopMFR series Bedford


In 1987 the Headquarters brigade and the Heathcote brigades were amalgamated to become the Heathcote-Headquarters brigade. The brigade operated out of the Headquarters station attached to the “Ray Watchorn” Fire Control Centre.


Heathcote/Headquarters Brigade in 1987 make up was then:


  • 1981 M series Bedford 4×4 (Heathcote 83)
  • 1954 Thorneycroft Nubian 6×6 (Heathcote 82)
  • 1982 Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 (Heathcote 31)
  • 1983 Leyland Mastiff 6×6 (Heathcote 72)
  • 1962 FC-170 Jeep. (Heathcote 32)
    The jeep was decommissioned shortly after and replaced in 1988 with a new Toyota tabletop “striker” of 600 litre capacity. (Heathcote 51)

 Thorneycroft1982 Toyota LandcruiserLeyland MastiffToyota “striker”









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