Join the CFA Connect forum to discuss local knowledge.
Bruce retired 14 years ago as a secondary school teacher and was proud to have seen out his career in the one location. He set up a Nordic skiing program that has so far produced five winter Olympians.
Bruce is a double vice president – of the VFBV and of the Rural stream – and has travelled 300,000 kilometres in those roles in the past four and a half years.
Tawonga brigade celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with 70 members, half of them active. The brigade area is very narrow and 20 kilometres long with forest line on either side where they support DSE. They attend between 50 and 60 incidents a year as either primary or support and attended once over the New South Wales border last year.
“We have four power stations in the Kiewa hydro scheme in our area,” says Bruce, “so we’ve got mega millions of assets.
“I’m one of a number here who has local knowledge. To me it means having the ability to deal with the community and any incidents in the most efficient way possible.
“It’s about being socially connected. Our road to the north gets cut by flooding so it’s knowing the farmer and calling him. If community members want local information, they know who to get in touch with. They can trust the person giving the message because they know you. CFA is the community and the community is CFA.
“We have a Mt Beauty community radio station which covers 50 kilometres down the Kiewa Valley and across the hills into the Ovens. It evens reaches Glenrowan. We have a CFA-focused slot once a week year round.
“When the Beechworth fire was going in 2009, I got a call from a local captain at 3am on 10 February. He told me it was burning into Mudgegonga and was going to hit the Kiewa Valley Highway where a whole heap of people commute. The road was going to be shut.
“We opened up community radio at 4am and gave regular updates that were timely, accurate and relevant. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who got in touch with the radio station. The community knows who to call because brigade members are prepared to put themselves out there.
“Community engagement is a two-way thing. Another time we had flooding and needed sandbags filled. We put out a request on the radio and you wouldn’t believe the number of people with shovels. If the brigade needs a bit of assistance, one call to the Red Cross lady and it’s all there.
The Tawonga/Mt Beauty area was also in the eye of the firestorm in the 2002/03 and 2006/07 campaign fires. The former fire was started by lightning 20 kilometres down the valley and threatened Bruce’s property. The 2006 fire started in Bright with no ignition source identified. The conditions were the same for both fires.
Bruce was deputy group officer in 2002 but had to step up to the group officer role when the member in the role had a heart attack.
“There was the classic roar of a dozen freight trains,” says Bruce. “We had huge smoke columns and were ringed with fire for weeks. It was all in the forest. When it came out we could deal with it.
“We had strike teams in the area for six weeks in 2002/03. We had a lot of long-term members who weren’t operational anymore but wanted to help so they sat in strike team leaders’ vehicles and it worked like a pilot system.
“A lot of them were farmers – they still are – and they know how conditions react to the environment. We have very volatile wind conditions in our valley – the wind swings around. There are nooks and crannies that funnel the breeze and steep slopes. The locals know all that. The role they played was vital.
“In those same fires, we had a captain on top of the hill sniffing the wind and saying, ‘We’re in trouble’. He told the ICC we wanted more trucks and the ICC told him he was wrong!”
Bruce enjoyed watching local knowledge in action during the recent flooding in Nathalia. “The deputy was a local and it was perfectly obvious that the incident controller was leaning heavily on the local. That’s the way it should be. CFA was delivering fresh bread and the daily papers to isolated houses – it was very neighbourly. It was typical CFA.
“When the strike teams were here, the women in the kitchen doing the catering were worried about slices so they put out a call on local radio and the slices poured in.
“My wife and all the other partners were busy being pencillers and a shoulder to lean on. Lorice got an early shift cooking and she left home at midnight! All these locals came in at the end of their shift and they were blackened. She didn’t recognise them.
“At that stage you’re just so grateful for a kind word and a cup of tea. And knowing that breakfast isn’t far away.”