Victoria’s volunteer firefighters are facing one of their most dangerous fire seasons in years. What motivates people to put their lives on the line to protect strangers? CATHERINE WATSON reports.
The next call came in while they were still there: a large grassfire was threatening a new housing estate in Cranbourne East. It took a couple of hours to extinguish, then they stayed until 8pm blacking out every ember because the next day was a day of total fire ban.
That same day there were also two false alarms, a call to rescue a toddler locked in a rapidly heating car and a couple of other incidents that Lee Bostock, first lieutenant of the Cranbourne CFA, can't recall. "Nine calls in all. The pager didn't stop all day."
By the following Tuesday he and five colleagues — Dave Prowse, Craig Dunlop, Alecia Black, Christine Burns and Peter Quill — were down in Portland, along with hundreds of CFA volunteers from around the state, fighting a large grassfire that had been burning out of control for several days. They spent four days — a large chunk of annual leave for most of them — back-burning scrub country, surrounded by smoke and haze, enduring temperatures in the mid 30s. At night they slept in a dormitory in a Hamilton boarding school.
Before you start feeling too sorry for Bostock and the others, consider this: they regret none of it.
As Dave Prowse, second lieutenant at Cranbourne, puts it, "All the training we do pays off in those situations on the fireground. We're doing things the general Joe Blow from off the street doesn't know how to do. I really enjoy it."
The 55,000 CFA volunteers throughout Victoria all have their own reasons for joining: for some it's a desire for excitement; others seek a closer connection with their community.
Interestingly, all the volunteers the Weekly spoke to insisted they got at least as much out of belonging to the CFA as they put in.
The thought of fighting fires in 40-degree heat is enough to make most turn on the air conditioner and take a cold shower.
Bostock says they build up stamina during the training so they don't really notice how hot it is while they're fighting the fires. "You're OK as long as you keep the fluids up. Afterwards you might say, 'Jeez, it's hot', but you don't notice while you're focused on what you're doing."
As first lieutenant, he's the brigade's strike team leader, in charge of all the volunteer crews. "I take them away and I make sure they come home again. I've never lost anyone and I intend to keep it that way."
Spoken just a couple of days after the death of a Victorian firefighter in Tasmanian — the second death of a volunteer firey so far this summer — the words hold extra import. "It's a reminder that what we do is dangerous," Bostock says. "You've got to watch what you're doing and be very aware."
Even caution and the best preparation provide no guarantees. In 2004, he and a strike team, largely made up of Casey crews, were fighting the Sydney fires when they were caught in a firestorm.
"It was 19 degrees and no wind, and then we heard the fire rumbling through the valley like a jumbo jet. It came up the hill very fast. One of our members thought he'd lost a couple of crew, but they were sheltering behind a building. It was a pretty hectic two hours. We were very lucky to get out alive."
Talk to firefighters and it's the camaraderie they talk about most: the team effort, the trust, the exhilaration of going into battle together and the sense of satisfaction afterwards.
Shane Miller joined the Scoresby brigade in the early 1980s and went to his first major fire, at Wannop Chemicals in Knox, soon afterwards "It was so big and so exciting! I was hooked."
But it's the friendship that's most important for him. He met his best man in the brigade and they both met their wives through the brigade. Mind you, it wasn't all sunshine and light. After he'd been in the brigade four or five years, his wife, Deborah, gave him an ultimatum: "It's me or the brigade". Wisely he gave up the brigade but in 1997, following the big fires, he rejoined at Clematis.
Now captain of the Clematis brigade, he recently spent a week helping out at the Tasman Peninsula fires. His wife is now very supportive. "Sometimes after a long fire season she can say, 'It'd be nice if you mowed our lawn' but she was the first to say, 'Go to Tasmania'."
He runs a security business with his son Jarryd, who is also a member of the Clematis brigade. When big fires are on, they take turns at doing fire brigade stuff and taking care of business. "I'm lucky I can bear the cost. It's a choice - I don't have to do it."
Ask CFA volunteers if they would like to be paid for the time they spend fighting fires and the answer is unanimous: no. Miller says it would destroy the vibe. "You would just be a paid employee."
Now retired, Rowan Smith has had two sessions in the CFA. The first time, in the 1980s, there was an element of keystone cops about the whole thing. "You just jumped on the back of a truck and went out. The things I saw . . . guys getting on the back of the truck in thongs and shorts!"
He rejoined at the Sassafras brigade about five years ago, after his son had joined, and was amazed by the change. "It's become very professional. There is a lot of training."
While he has never felt in danger while fighting a fire, he's conscious that as volunteers on the front line they are leaving their own homes undefended. "Our wives are there on their own. Back in 1984, some of the CFA people actually lost their houses."
John Schauble joined the CFA in 1982 when volunteers had to buy their own overalls and boots, unless they could scrounge hand-me-downs from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Now captain of the Sassafras brigade, he likens it to running a small business in your spare time.
"You've got the same issues — human resources, the cost of members you lose, the training costs. It's very much about what you can give the volunteers: transferable job skills such as vehicle driving, chainsaw operation, how to run a meeting effectively."
As for the view from the "lowlands" that anyone living in the Dandenongs is borderline mad, he begs to differ.
"If people are terrified they need to live somewhere else. Living in the hills means living with bushfires and it means having a plan.
"But I've lived here most of my life and I'm still here. My house is still standing after 85 years."
Not everyone has been so lucky. In 1997, fire swept across the Dandenong ridge, killing three people and destroying 41 houses.
"When you have deaths in your own community it really hits home," Schauble says.