“Over the years we’ve worked to reach people by holding open days at the fire station and offering brochures and other information, but they’re often poorly attended. We’d be lucky to get half a dozen people coming along on a good day. It was a waste of time for us,” Captain Sears said.
“People often aren’t interested in hearing what we’ve got to say unless there’s smoke in the air. District presenters were being met with poor attendance from the community as well, so the brigade got together and we asked ourselves what can we do better?
“We decided to run some sessions ourselves in the community and see how it all went. It was very successful. People like seeing their brigade out and about and respond better when we can provide extremely localised advice about where the threat would be coming from in that street.”
The brigade began by visiting high bushfire risk areas on the outskirts of town and mail dropping houses one-by-one to let them know they were coming.
“We set up two street meetings a night, finishing one and then walking a few streets over to begin the next one. The mail-outs were a good way of attracting people, many of whom also took it as a reminder to clean up their properties before we came,” he said.
“We targeted six areas over three nights and reached around 58 families. After handing out enough Fire Ready Kits for neighbours and people working away from home we probably reached another 14 families on top of that. We’d have to hold 10 years of station open days to reach that many people but we managed to get through them in one go. We’ll certainly be growing on it next year.
“Our members were able to talk specifically about the local fire risk - how it may affect them and which direction it would be coming from. We explained to a lot of town people that they could still be impacted by fire where they lived, as well as the fact that they might not see a truck at every house.
“They really listened because we’re locals and tell it as it is. There was no glossing – it was ‘this is what could happen on a bad day and this is what you need to be prepared for.’ I live on a farm and we gather up all our personal photos and jewellery before the start of the fire season if it looks bad.”
The Stratford brigade is no stranger to bushfire, having been involved in a number of campaign fires.
“We’ve been involved in all the campaign fires going right back to recent days – back to 2000. I took a strike team to Churchill on Black Saturday and we’ve fought fires in Boolarra.
While the Stratford Brigade had two young recruits join recently, Captain Mike Sears is always on the lookout for new members.
“We’re going pretty well but, as with a lot of the smaller communities, a lot of our members work in town through the day and we struggle to respond to daytime incidents. It’s just a sign of the times. I know a lot of other brigades that also need more people in and around the town during the day.”
Captain Sears attended his first brigade meeting in 1973 and has been a CFA member ever since.
By Jason Leigh