Beyond the call of duty
The debt owed to members of the Rural Fire Service is immeasurable. Volunteers risked their lives and worked to the brink of exhaustion; and most, if not all, are prepared to do it again this summer.
The summer of 2019-2020 hosted some of the worst bushfires Australia has ever experienced. The loss was devastating: more than 18.5 million hectares of land was burnt to cinders; almost 6000 buildings were destroyed; the loss of wildlife is inestimable; 35 people perished and thousands of individuals and families had their lives changed forever.
Turramurra itself was breached by the fires, saved ultimately by the magical pink rain of fire retardant.
Nic Lyons is Captain of Ku-ring-gai Bush Fire Brigade. He’s held that position for three years and been with the RFS for 12 years.
“When I took a break from working in 2008 I joined my local brigade. Like most members I volunteered to have the opportunity of giving something back to the community I have enjoyed for so long,” says Nic.
The brigade may attend structure fires and motor vehicle accidents; assist the SES with storm damage and occasionally search and rescue. Its primary responsibility, however, is bush fires which may be anywhere in the state or beyond. When they’re not responding to an emergency members undertake hazard reductions, maintain equipment and station facilities, train regularly and engage with the community help prepare for bushfires.
RFS members come from every demographic. Almost anyone can join.
“There are no particularly special requirements,” says Nic. “ A basic level of fitness is necessary as some of the work can be strenuous. Clearly, we want members who are willing to give up some of their free time to assist our community - and the ability to work as part of a team and look after one another on the fireground is critical.”
Together, the Ku-ring-gai and Killara brigades completed 95 deployments between August 2019 and February 2020, fighting fires throughout the state and in south east Queensland. Deployments lasted from 24 hours to several weeks, with crew changeovers every five or so days.
“The most remarkable thing about last fire season was the large number and enormous size of the fires throughout the state,” says Nic. “The commitment of our members and colleagues to field crews through such a protracted season was outstanding, and the gratitude of the communities we visited was very rewarding.”
Nic saw devastation and the grief for lost lives and homes that he would not easily forget, especially after the fires came into his own neighbourhood.
“I think the fire in South Turramurra brought home to many residents the fact that no homes located near bushland are immune from the effects of bushfires, even in surburbia,” Nic reflected. “You just have to look at the fires of 1994 and 2003 which devasted many parts of Ku-ring-gai.”
Catastrophic conditions had been forecast for that day, which meant crews were already on alert and were able to act quickly. One thing that frustrates Nic and other RFS personnel is that many vulnerable residents still don’t prepare and plan in advance and many wait too long then leave under highly dangerous conditions.
Nic’s advice to people living in fire prone areas is:
1. Prepare a bushfire survival plan and make sure your whole family understand it
2. Prepare you home and land to minimise the risk of damage or loss through bush fire by cleaning up around the house and ensuring embers can not get into your home
3. Stay informed of the bush fire danger levels during the fire season (these come out with the weather forecast and are available on the RFS website)
4. If your bushfire survival plan is to leave your home before the fire arrives – leave early. Don’t try and leave when the fire is imminent.
5. Stay informed of what fires are in your area and may impact you by downloading the Fires Near Me app and setting a watch zone around your home. Also listen to the emergency radio broadcasting service which is the ABC.
Nic has lived in the Ku-ring-gai LGA for the past 30 years and in Turramurra since 2012. He loves the leafiness of the suburbs and proximity of the bush which is why he felt compelled to join the RFS.
He knows the work of the RFS is valued and appreciated and that communities always pull together in a crisis.
“It is very heartening to see the generosity of Australians, not only towards the RFS but most importantly, the many communities and residents who have been devastated by these terrible fires. As a nation we are at our best in these times.”