Victoria volunteer firefighters are facing one of the most dangerous fire seasons in years. What motivates people to put their lives on the line to protect strangers? CATHERINE WATSON reports.
THURSDAY, January 3 . . . a lazy morning. The first call didn't come in until after midday — an airconditioner in a Cranbourne house had caught fire. On their way back to the station, the crew saw smoke: a classroom was on fire near the Sikh temple in Evans Road, Lyndhurst.
The next call came in while they were still there: a large grass fire 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 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 in Portland, along with hundreds of CFA volunteers from around the state, fighting a large grass fire 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 are doing things that 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 temperatures is enough to make most of us turn on the airconditioner and take a cold shower. Lee 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 - 'Geez, 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 Tasmania — 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."
He says this year's conditions are horrendous. "The grass is 100 per cent cured all over the state. If you drove up to the Dandenongs now you would be in horror. It's the environment they live in. It's the same every time — Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday — you can tell people but it's the same old, same old: 'We'll be right. We won't get burnt out.'
"We won't be putting our lives at risk to go in and save houses. If it's not safe, we won't be there. Our crew is the first priority."
Even caution and the best preparation provide no absolute guarantees. In 2004, Bostock 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 could hear 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. We put away a few that night.
"We talked about how it crept up on us. It certainly brought the crew together. It was the best strike team I've been involved with. A lot of them stepped up to become strike team leaders of other brigades — Langwarrin, Narre Warren, Hastings. I still see a lot of them."
Talk to firefighters and it's the camaraderie they mention 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 it. Mind you, it wasn't all sunshine and light. After he'd been in there four or five years, his wife, Deborah, gave him an ultimatum: "It's me or the brigade". Wisely, he chose her but in 1997, following the big fires that hit the Dandenongs, he rejoined at Clematis.
Now captain there, 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," Miller says.
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." Dave Prowse says: "I think pay would ruin it."
Every time he goes away on firefighting duties, he spends the next few days catching up in his
windscreen business. He also loses jobs, but he's prepared to wear the cost. "It's something I love doing. Lee Bostock agrees: "I don't do it for money.I wouldn't take it. I feel I want to put something back into the community."
The manager of Berbec, a manufacturing company in Carrum Downs, Bostock says he's very fortunate with his employers, who pay him when he is away firefighting. "They realise we're needed to fight fires. Employers don't get the recognition they deserve for letting their employees go."
Berbec owner Chris Beattie has a different take on it. "Lee is my second in command. He basically runs the place for me. He runs it like clockwork and I have no doubt this is at least partly due to skills he's learned with the CFA. They are brilliant teachers."
Beattie only wishes more employers could see the value in their employees volunteering. "I know there are a lot of volunteers in the CFA who don't get paid by their employers. There have even been cases of termination over the years, which is disgraceful."
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. He says the days of the 20-30-year veterans like himself are almost finished. "If you get five years out of someone now, that's good."
Now captain of the Sassafrass 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."
Cranbourne is now a semi-urban brigade, with some professional staff, but it is still part of a rural movement. Christine Burns joined the brigade about four years ago but the Portland fire was her first time in a strike team. They were some way from the fire front so it was not dangerous work; rather hard and monotonous - but important. There is one image she will never forget. "You go through the country towns and there are people clapping," she says, still in awe.
"They stand and count the trucks as they go past."
Victoria's Country Fire Authority
■ 1221 brigades (178 urban, 908 rural).
■ 55,137 volunteers ( 44,101 men, 11,036 women).
■ 38 CFA volunteers have died in action since 1980.