Faces from the fire front

Thanks to the valiant efforts of our firefighters, emergency service crews and volunteers, the Mountains is beginning its recovery. These are the stories from three members of the Blackheath/Mt Victoria RFS.

Gavin Willis

Gavin Willis' motivation for joining Blackheath/Mt Victoria Rural Fire Brigade 12 months ago was simple: "The feeling of knowing I can help when others can't," he said.

"I'd hate to be sitting at home listening to sirens all the time and feeling helpless. Joining was also a way to meet people in the local community as I only moved up 18 months ago from the city," he said.

The Mountains community definitely appreciates the role volunteer firefighters play in protecting our local villages.

"There are signs everywhere around the neighbourhood thanking us. They also give us a wave or thumbs up with a big smile when we are driving around in the truck. Residents would also make us tea and coffee when protecting their properties - at all times of the night too," said Mr Willis.

Blackheath/Mt Victoria RFS member Gavin Willis: 'I'd hate to be sitting at home listening to sirens all the time and feeling helpless.'

Blackheath/Mt Victoria RFS member Gavin Willis: 'I'd hate to be sitting at home listening to sirens all the time and feeling helpless.'

The $1000 payment from the federal government "was definitely a sign of goodwill" for volunteers who had given up work to help in the current crisis, he said.

"Fortunately I qualified, however there are a lot of people that didn't who also deserve to be paid something for their time."

Mr Willis is self-employed and said the brigade is flexible in working around the circumstances of its members.

"I generally work all day then go out late afternoon and into the evening. The brigade work with your schedule. One thing I asked was not to be rostered on consecutive days so I get a rest day in between," he said.

While Mr Willlis said he has never feared for his safety as a firefighter, but long shifts can take a toll.

"Those shifts which are supposed to finish at midnight but end up finishing at 4am knock you around for a couple of days in terms of energy levels. Not to mention it's usually added on to a week of full-time work," he said.

The community's support of volunteer firefighters was faultless but governments could do more, he said.

"When the fires are on they should be paying for proper catering to feed everyone around the clock. We need it for energy and it's good for moral. We ate sandwiches for months for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We're out there working for free. I feel that's the least they could do."

With longer bushfire seasons looking to be the norm, Mr Willis said it was only family circumstance that would curb his volunteering.

"My wife is about to have a baby... If it wasn't for that I'd keep volunteering once or twice a week as long as needed," he said.

Catrina Jordan: Sometimes uses up adrenalin reserves.

Catrina Jordan: Sometimes uses up adrenalin reserves.

Catrina Jordan

Crew leader Catrina Jordan has served as part of Blackheath/Mt Victoria RFS for 12 years, motivated by the "satisfaction of serving and protecting our community particularly during fires".

She is in no doubt the community appreciates the service of RFS volunteers.

"Absolutely the community has shown us their appreciation through their contributions financially, their generosity through donations of food and supplies during these fires along with their comments via social media on our Facebook page," she said.

Asked if governments appreciate the effort, her answer is different: "Not really though it's nice to see the government finally providing compensation for lost hours at work."

Fire shifts can be be tiring, depending on the circumstances.

"It really depends on what type of shift it is and when it is," she said. "A day shift anywhere between 6am and midnight can be easier than a night shift depending on what you are doing. If it's a really busy day on the fireground then you are generally pretty tired at the end of it and you generally use up most of your adrenalin reserves."

Sharing the experience with your colleagues afterwards helps, she said.

"We always try and debrief after a shift which helps with our mental and emotional wellbeing."

Ms Jordan said her private sector employer is quite flexible and allowing time for firefighting work, offering one day of community leave and the flexibility to take unpaid leave or annual leave.

"It would be difficult to take extended periods away from my job, though I could continue doing weekends for as long as required," she said.

Her local brigade is very understanding about the limits firefighters face.

"Our brigade understands the need to ensure no one is overworked during these extreme periods. The health and safety of an individual and the crew is a priority."

Damien Mah

Damien Mah admits he felt "useless" when he was evacuated during the 2001 fires in Glenbrook so decided to join the RFS.

He was a member of the Hazelbrook brigade from 2002-08 and has been with Blackheath/Mt Victoria since then. His most worrying time as a firefighter was on December 21 last year helping defend the Happy Daze property in Blackheath.

"One of our trucks was overrun with fire and we couldn't assist them as the road to get to them was ablaze. We had to stand there and wait for the fire to come to us out of the valley."

He said it was difficult to wind down after that day, "partly because of the adrenalin from the day and because my house was still under threat from fire that evening".

But the work of a volunteer firefighter is generally physically draining.

"An eight hour shift, where I am actively dragging hoses through steep terrain and breaking open burning logs to put them out leaves me physically tired for the next day. Doing back-to-back shifts each day makes a person tired and sore and a day off in between is ideal."

As a high school teacher, Mr Mah said he is "lucky" that volunteering didn't impact his work during the recent fires.

"I made myself as available as possible once the school holidays commenced. [But] I have been on RFS crews where my colleagues are out of pocket because they have given up time from work to volunteer."

Being a volunteer firefighter also involves juggling family commitments for many brigade members.

"As a single father, it's easier on the weeks when my daughters live with their mum," he said. "They are teenagers now, so depending on my shift, all I need do is make sure they have food in the house and they understand why I might not be home to cook or on hand to drive them around."

Mr Mah said Blackheathens couldn't do any more to support its RFS volunteers.

"I believe the community is immensely grateful," he said. "People who know that I am in the RFS constantly say thank you, not to mention the huge donations of food, supplies and money... We had a lady come in to the station on Christmas Day with a pavlova, in tears, because she was so grateful for our efforts."