A siren blares, shattering the peaceful quiet of a warm Sunday morning at the Seville Rural Fire Brigade station. There’s a fire. A flurry of activity breaks out, but this is all routine. Bright yellow uniforms are donned, helmets fitted, and the volunteer firefighters loaded up into the truck. ‘Tanker 2’, its red sheen glistening in the country Victorian sun, rolls out of the station with flashing lights and a screeching siren, off to do its duty for the people of Seville. All this within minutes of the first alarm. Such a quick roll out is routine for the brigade. Frequent training and a passion for helping the community drives the all-volunteer team at Seville.
Out in the Yarra Valley, a CFA firefighting brigade is a crucial part of any community, and with reduced rainfalls and rising temperatures expected to continue, the brigade is wise to be prepared and well-practiced. The fire season in the south of the country is “likely to commence earlier than usual and be more active than normal”, according to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, which states the cause of this is “warmer and drier than average climate conditions and outlooks”.
In Seville, the brigade is taking notice of such predictions. “Every season is a bad season and we’re anticipating a bad season, obviously with the rainfall we haven’t had and the way the weather’s been,” says Captain David Clarke. A volunteer firefighting veteran of 20 years, Captain Clarke has been in charge of the Seville brigade for nearly a decade. “I’ve lived around here all my life. A lot of brigades throughout the state are like that. They’ve got a lot of families of second and third generation.” Captain Clarke’s family has deep historical roots with the brigade; his grandfather was its founding captain. “It’s a bit of a family thing, in the blood.”
Captain Clarke says that the dry conditions are obvious to those in the Yarra Valley, and he expects them to continue. “Reality is it’s drying up. We don’t have the rain. Usually October is a fairly wet month, but there’s no significant rain predicted,” says Captain Clarke.
“The canopy’s dry, the undergrowth is dry. It’s still green, but everything’s dry.”
The Seville brigade is no stranger to severe fire seasons. Established in 1941, the brigade has fought against such infernos as those on Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday. Captain Clarke grimly recalls the latter, which ravaged Victoria in the summer of 2009. “It was shocking. Terrible. I never want to go through that again in my life.”
On that day, ‘Tanker 2’ was sent to Dixons Creek, while ‘Tanker 1’, driven by Clarke, was ordered to Gruyere. There they battled a large grass fire, trying to stop it from getting into the Warramate Hills. Captain Clarke credits an afternoon wind change with saving them that day and redirecting the fire. The ferocity of the blaze has stuck with him, and he recalls the dread of being in the truck and seeing fire all around. “Nothing was going to stop what happened that day.”
Ever wary of another such disaster, the volunteers train extensively. The brigade runs through practice fire scenarios with other brigades, participates in burn-offs, and completes drills for situations such as a ‘burnover’. The ‘burnover’ drill trains the firefighters on how to survive in the truck if the fire changes direction and traps them. Introduced after Black Saturday, crews can hunker down in their trucks, which are now fitted to spray a curtain of water around the vehicle while the fire passes over. Another method of training is the use of fire pods; large containers with a steel car or replica workshop inside of it, rigged up with gas burners, and set alight and dealt with as a real fire situation.
All these preparations are essential, but they aren’t able to recreate the atmosphere and circumstances of actually fighting a bushfire. For practice under those conditions, crews join strike teams, in which organised groups of brigades travel to fight a fire outside of their area. David Ryan, a volunteer firefighting veteran of 25 years and a member of the Seville brigade for the past six, believes that going on strike teams provides experience that can’t be taught from training scenarios. “You get to feel the heat, and one of the biggest things I found was the smoke. You can do all the scenarios you want, but it’s not the same as when you get into a situation where you’re on the back of the truck, and you can’t see the front of the truck through the smoke,” says Ryan, who is also the brigade’s recruitment officer. “You’re coughing and choking on it because it flared up out of nowhere, and you didn’t have time to get your mask or your goggles on yet, so you’re coughing your guts up.” Andrew Butler, who has been with the brigade for six years, agrees.“You learn a lot about what happens, fire behaviour, how to respond to it, and how to attack a fire. It’s very different on the fire ground”.
On the other side of the Yarra Valley, there is shared concern about the coming season. John Schauble, the President of the Sassafras-Ferny Creek Fire Brigade, believes that not only will this fire season be longer, but it will be what he refers to as “the new normal”.
“What’s gone on in the past is no longer a fantastic guide to what we’re going to see coming in the future,” says Schauble. He believes that climate change is a major cause of this shift, as well as changing patterns of settlement and land use. “I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, and if you look at it over that period, we have more frequent fires, they burn differently, and there’s more intensity to them.”
Schauble says that efforts to keep the community informed have improved greatly over recent years, but he is concerned that too much information might overwhelm communities. “While I’m a great believer that you tell people as much as you can, sometimes people tend to turn off with the ‘boy who cried wolf syndrome’.”He says that while it’s a good thing plenty of information is being given out, it can be a “double-edged sword”.
“A real risk is that people don’t take responsibility for themselves, and they’re not proactively managing their situation. They’re just waiting for someone to tell them what to do.”
Back in Seville, Captain Clarke vents similar frustrations with some misconceptions held within the community. “Most people in the area are pretty good, but there’s people who aren’t, like those who move out from the city and aren’t prepared. They’ve come out from the inner ‘burbs, and they still think we’re paid staff and they‘ll have a fire truck knocking on the door if they’re told to evacuate, but that’s not the case.”
Rolling back up to the station, ‘Tanker 2’ has completed its job. Today’s call out was nothing major; a tree fire on a property out in Wandin East. It’s a routine job that the brigade is used to dealing with. There’s still hope that the coming season will be just that; routine.