By David Southwell
As fires continue to ravage the eastern states of Australia, the defence of life and property often falls to brave and dedicated volunteers.
Often such volunteers in rural areas are drawn from the pews of the local church and that is certainly the case in the East Gippsland town of Bairnsdale.
Longtime Bairnsdale UC member Alan Cracknell is typical of those prepared to swap their Sunday best for the yellow uniform of volunteer firefighters whenever the need arises.
Alan, 75, is secretary of the Bairnsdale Country Fire Authority brigade and, in what might be considered an ominous sign, they were called into bushfire action before summer even truly set in.
“There’s been some small bushfires already down this part of the world started by lightning,” Alan says.
“The bush is extremely dry, so it’s a fairly high fire risk at this stage. West and south Gippsland have had a lot more rain than we have.”
As with large swathes of rural Victoria, there are no paid firefighters in the region, leaving the 43 volunteers to attend to every incident that a professional brigade would handle in a more urban setting.
“We respond to house fires, car fires, motor vehicle accidents with or without fatalities, rubbish bin fires, shed fires, grass and bushfires – everything,” Alan says.
“We are a very busy brigade. We had 282 calls last year, that just the Bairnsdale fire brigade went to. Brigade members are on call 24/7 and they will turn out when they can depending on work and family and other commitments.
“You never know what you are going to get at what time of day. We’ve even been called out to remove a swooping magpie.
“Young coppers especially can’t understand that we do this voluntarily and might be called out of bed anytime of night to do the job.”
At 75 years of age, Alan is playing more of a support role nowadays.
“I don’t fight the fires now much, I get information and also do fire investigation,” he said.
He also takes part in brigade visits to schools, kindergartens and community groups.
“We talk about fire safety, do some activities and squirt some hoses, things like that,” Alan said.
He also offers peer support to CFA members who have been through fires and incidents or even family problems.
Alan, who was employed as a professional CFA liaison for 10 years before going back to voluntary work, says there are a “lot of positives” in what he does, but he has also witnessed some deeply traumatising incidents.
“A number of years ago two little girls died in a house fire,” he says.
“We also have been called out to where people have been incinerated in a car fire.”
Alan says Bairnsdale Uniting Church has often been at the forefront of offering help at times of loss.
“The op shop there in particular is a brilliant supporter of local people,” he says.
“We have had occasions where someone has lost the whole house. The op shop provided the materials, furniture, bedding whatever for the fire victim to move into a new house.
“A local trucking company trucked all the requirements up to the property and the bloke had has his house fixed up with furniture, crockery the whole lot.”
In 2015 Bairnsdale Uniting Church donated a 607sqm block of land to the Glenaladale CFA brigade so they could expand their base of operations.
The church continues to have a close relationship with the brigade and has raised money to buy equipment.
In such close-knit rural areas bushfire safety is very much a communal concern.
Alan said looking after your neighbour in the country begins in your own backyard.
“The ones who look after their property and do some proactive work they improve the safety for themselves and also their neighbours,” he said.
Alan offered some advice on how to be fire ready.
“Clear your property for a start, cut the grass around the house and around the major assets, don’t burn off rubbish there’s fire restrictions,” he said.
Alan said those living on farms or surrounded by bushland need to have a fire plan.
“If they’re going to leave they need to work out where there are going to and report where’ they’ve gone so we account for everyone in the district, that’s the main thing.”
For farm fire safety tips, go to www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/fire-safety-on-the-farm