On my late evening dog walks in the rural village of Yangan near Warwick, it has become customary to wave to the volunteer firefighters as they arrive back at base. If they can lift their arms, they wave back.
These volunteers, known in Australia as ‘firies’, are holding containment lines around multiple fires burning in the ranges around Cunningham’s Gap. The Cunningham Highway between Warwick and Brisbane has been closed for two weeks due to poor visibility and debris on the road. The highway opened yesterday, with restricted speeds on several sections.
As a result of fires at Spicer’s Gap, Swanfels, Clumber and elsewhere in the district, we have been ‘smoked in’ on multiple occasions. On Wednesday, a wind change brought smoke down to ground level as district people turned out for the Festival of Small Halls gig at Freestone.
This event, featuring local lads the Fern Brothers, well-travelled duo Hat Fitz and Cara and British songwriter Blair Dunlop, was a much-needed morale boost after two years of drought and two months of bushfire concerns.
You could be forgiven for not knowing there are tens of thousands of Australians who volunteer as firies. When not involved in extinguishing and containing bush fires, they are often out and about cutting firebreaks. Apart from periodic encounters outside bush fire brigade sheds or local pubs, we don’t see these people, who melt back into the community once the danger has passed. It is important that we do not take for granted the vital services they provide to rural communities.
You hear stories – a note left inside a house, surrounded by charred vegetation. “We saved the house…we owe you a bottle of milk.”
Friends who had a rural property in the Grampians returned from travels, unaware that bushfires had swept through the district. Once again, the land was charred but the house saved.
If there is a risk to the heroic status of rural firefighters, headlines announcing that a teenage volunteer in NSW had been charged with multiple counts of arson, were not what the fire services needed. While the volunteer is yet to have his day in court, he has been charged with setting seven fires in the Bega district and then returning to help fight them.
“Our members will be rightly angry that the alleged actions of one individual can tarnish the reputation and hard work of so many,” RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said in a statement to the media.
As explained on The Feed (TV station SBS programme ), bush fires are best managed by a predominantly local, volunteer workforce.
Stuart Ellis, a former Chief Officer of the Country Fire Service in South Australia, said that as fire seasons intensify, the need for firefighters at any one time will vary across Australia.
“It’s difficult to predict when and where the largest bushfires will be; even once fires start, a shift in wind direction can rapidly change things.
“When volunteers are required, they need to be present in significant numbers and often close to the areas where the fires will occur.”
Local firies are more likely to have the knowledge, familiarity and expertise in fuel, weather conditions and topography
The numbers are impressive – 70,000 volunteers keep the NSW Fire Service going – the largest such brigade in the world. The size implies a huge management task for co-ordinating fire brigades, involving around 900 paid staff. A further 7,000 paid firefighters are employed by Fire and Rescue NSW to handle the metropolitan areas, via some 335 fire stations.
In Queensland, 36,000 people have signed up to the Rural Fire Service, with 5,000 currently active. Volunteers (hereafter known in Australian parlance as ‘vollies’), are in the same category as those enlisting with Emergency Services. They never know when they will get the call, but when they do, it’s an open-ended job with no ‘knock-off’ (quitting) time.
Ellis told The Feed that Australia would be unable to manage the largest fire events without the ‘surge capacity’ volunteers represent.
If you have ever met a ‘firie’, they will tell you they are doing it for the community. Signing up to be a bush brigade volunteer is a selfless task, which for the past 30 years has drawn reliable numbers of people.
But despite the large numbers answering the call to fight spring bushfires in NSW, Victoria, South Australia,Tasmania and Queensland, volunteer numbers are dropping.
A Productivity Commission report shows that 17,000 volunteer firefighters have quit over the past five years. Stuart Robb of the NSW Rural Fire Service told The World Today the main issue was that long-serving firefighters were getting older. In NSW, where vollies outnumber career firefighters 10-1, 40% of firies are over 50.
Robb said people in the age group 25-45 were less able to be involved in community firefighting because of work and family responsibilities.an
The trend is also evident in the US, where a study showed that volunteer numbers dropped from 814,850 in 2015 to 682,600 in 2017. The National Volunteer Fire Council said these were the lowest numbers since the survey began in 1983. The decline in volunteer activity is most noticeable in communities of fewer than 2,500 people. Ageing is a noticeable factor, with 53% of volunteers aged over 40 and 32% over 50.
The US government is working to alleviate this issue, with a grant of $40 million to help pay for volunteer recruitment and retention. Congress is working towards making volunteer firefighters eligible for student loan forgiveness and housing assistance.
Meanwhile, the Australian government has been lobbied by a group of 23 former fire and emergency service leaders. They want the government to declare a climate emergency and commit to investing in more water-bombing aircraft and firefighting resources.
Researcher Blythe McLennan of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University says that bushfire volunteering is at a crossroads.
If we are fighting bushfires into the next decade with the same or declining numbers of volunteers, using the same approaches we use today, then clearly the job will be much harder and the demands on volunteers will become more extreme.
One of the major reasons for a decline in volunteer numbers, particularly after prolonged and serious fires, is that volunteer firies may suffer financial hardship as a result of missing days at work.
The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (NSW) has asked the NSW Rural Fire Service to investigate the feasibility of providing financial support via a welfare/relief fund to volunteer fire-fighters during protracted bushfire emergencies.
Eukey Qld Fire Brigade volunteer Rob Simcocks says it’s not just about time off and lost income, but also the sheer exhaustion and mental health concerns after such big efforts.
“It’s not just the time on the fireline, but also a lot of recovery time where you just have to rest, getting nothing else done.”
He agrees volunteer numbers are declining but thinks the age estimates are conservative, given that his local brigade has an average age of 60.
This reminds me of the story my late father-in-law used to tell, of his time fighting forest fires in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.
“I retired when I turned 75 because I was embarrassing the young blokes who told me they couldn’t keep up with me.”
That may be a shaggy dog story, but it typifies the attitude of people who take on a dangerous job to keep their neighbours out of harm’s way.