A time of heroes

Sometimes you see something and it brings to mind a memory. For people who are particularly visual, this can be a very powerful reminder of their past.

There's even a term - the French term déjà vu - that refers to the specific sense of having seen something before.

For other people, sound is a stronger link to the past. A song can take you back to your school days, a holiday you went on, a love interest, even to a really bad time in your life. Other sounds can have the same effect… birds squawking, mozzies, helicopters… you name it. Certain sounds can elicit a strong response.

But I was reminded just the other day of just how potent a memory trigger smell can be.

I was out at the Gunning fire (taking a few pics and then getting out as quickly as I could - no hero, me). But even in my brief period there, the smoke was thick and pervasive and you couldn’t filter it out no matter how hard you tried.

That smell took me back to the seventies and eighties and to my dad, Ron Gordon, who was a volunteer bushfire fighter. Obviously he was other things as well – a dad, a shearer, a farmer – but come summer, he fought bushfires.

I wasn’t allowed to go to many fires with him – only a couple - even though most farmer’s sons my age did. I’m not sure if he was over protective or if he had just assessed my potential usefulness at a fire and decided I’d be more harm than help (fair call really) but most of my bushfire memories of my old man relate to before and after the fires.

Like most farmers in the 80s, he had a truck that had a water tank and pump on the back and that was his primary fire fighting vehicle. His truck was an old Morris he called “Flick” that sat there all winter unused and then every summer the engine would turn over first time.

Flick had a CB radio in it and from memory Channel 5 was the channel you listened to back in the day for any emergency updates. There were no mobile phones, and on our farm at Chatsbury there was no landline either, so when the temperatures got higher and the wind got worse, the radio went on.

When fires did start, the Tarlo Bushfire Brigade would spring into action, like a well-oiled if somewhat creaky machine. Dad’s Army we used to call them… made up of people who all seemed ancient to me at the time. There included long time captain and former boxer Billy Mitchell; dad’s mate, pig farmer Graham Duesbury; dad’s cousin and the unofficial lord mayor of Tarlo, Terry Cunningham and pretty much anyone else who owned a property up and down Taralga Road between Myrtleville and Goulburn.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), or safety gear, wasn’t a requirement back in the day so there they’d be, in there flannelette shirts, moleskins, jeans or overalls, knitted jumpers and hats… and for a real serious fire dad would even switch his beloved terry towelling hat for a real one.

You’d hear them on their CBs swearing and barking at each other. I remember one year Terry Cunningham tried to bring discipline to the radio and get the men to stick with correct radio terms and procedures. It was doomed from the start. Brian Murphy pretty much put a nail in that idea when, after they were lectured about using radios properly, he replied that the blue goose flies south at midnight or something similar. I still use that code sometimes in case anyone can let me know what it means.

These guys were informally dressed, not terribly well trained and maybe even a little chaotic but when fires started, they were there. Unquestioningly, unflinchingly, instantly.

Once there was a fire near our place at Chatsbury and you could only access it through a part of our property we called Spring Head. Proper fire trucks were there by this stage, scattered with the trucks used by the local farmers and the consensus was that their four wheel drives could never make it up the steep incline on the other side of Spring Head.

But the fire still burned and grew, and so there’s my old man jumping in Flick the old Morris, pointing it up the hill like some slightly older and chubbier Man from Snowy River as his mechanical pony went where other horses wouldn’t go. He made it, and was straight out of the truck and fighting the fire.

As I said, I only went to a few bushfires with my dad and my involvement was minimal, but I remember my old man, closing in on 50, and his brigade colleagues, many of whom were older,  and how the years seemed to drop off them as they attacked fires like young fellas, and like lives depended on it. Because they did.

Giants they were. Not in height but heroes in my eyes. By and large these were guys who did back-breaking work all day (and I haven’t met too many farmers or shearers who didn’t have buggered backs as a result) and then somehow found another gear and dug deeper when called to fight bushfires.

There were lots of fires out Tarlo and Chatsbury way in the 70s and 80s, and a lot of land lost, and a lot of stock lost. I have no idea how many properties, lives and head of stock they saved and I could guarantee they had no idea either. Keeping score wasn't the way they were built.

Anyway, when I was at Gunning taking photos on Wednesday, I remembered the smell because it was the smell dad brought home after every fire. In his clothes, in the Land Rover, throughout the entire house after while.  

There was also the look. Think of the hardest day’s work you’ve ever done… then add flames, fatigue, the need to save lives and fire-reddened and smoke-blackened faces, and through their squinting, bloodshot eyes you might see the look firefighters carry after a fire.

One of the problems with memories, which Teddy Kennedy pointed out when eulogising his brother Robert, is that there is a danger of mythologising and lionising the past and making the people and events of the past bigger in memory than they were in life. And there is a MASSIVE danger of thinking “back then” was somehow better than “now”.

On Wednesday I was at the Bookham staging centre for the Cobbler Rd fire with Yass Tribune editor Karan Gabriel and it became clear that we are STILL living in a time of heroes.

There were firefighters all over the place from brigades from far and wide, all in the correct PPE that showed what unit they were with.  Smoke was still around the place, and so was that smell.

Two older guys from the Yass brigade (well slightly older than me I’d say… apologies if I’m wrong) were off to one side as the premier and RFS Commissioner met and chatted with the firies and were keen to be out of the spotlight, but didn’t mind having a yack with me because I was with the Yass Tribune editor so I must have been ok.

These guys had just a few days ago fought the Gunning fire on Gundaroo Rd. They fought it into the night and the next day they were called in to fight the Cobbler Rd fire, as they’ve labelled the fire near Yass due to where it started.

True to form, their faces were reddened and smoke-darkened, their eyes were squinting but they looked like the luckiest (or most relieved) blokes alive because they were being given a few hours break.

The previous night they’d been one of eight units saving the Southwell place (they assumed I knew where that was - I had no clue but nodded anyway). When they got there, conditions had changed, resources were needed elsewhere and suddenly eight units were two. But they stood their ground, continued to fight for the house and eventually saved it. Now they waited to see where they'd be sent next.

That fire by the way had burnt 16,000 hectares when I was talking to them, and killed 1000s of head of stock. It was massive in size and had many fronts. When you speak to any firefighter they really only have vision of their only little piece and few have any idea of the broader picture.  Few would have known, for instance, that – but for their herculean efforts and a few pieces of luck with the wind direction – there were real fears for the safety of Yass the night before.

As nearby fires start and finish, units are switched and changed between firegrounds. The Hume Highway has been filled with red RFS trucks heading backwards and forwards, from one fire to another, and then back again as needed.

Some of the guys at Bookham had been pulled across to fight the Grabben Gullen fire and their reward for helping out at Grabby was to be called back to Yass to keep fighting fires.

These guys….

We get criticised at the Goulburn Post, and no doubt at other papers, when we praise one group of people and leave out others. Can I please stipulate for the record that I am a huge fan of all emergency services and others that look after us each day.

I’ve said many times that we are a police town and we owe them a huge debt for the safety they provide us with every day. All the firies, the ambos, the SES… all the people who run towards the things that we run away from,  and who risk their lives to keep us safe – they are all deserving of regular and ongoing praise. And of course many of them, along with National Parks and Wildlife, councils and other services are heavily involved and playing key roles in helping the team effort in fighting fires.

I don’t mean in any way to undermine or diminish their efforts when I praise the RFS. But I’m hoping it’s ok to single the RFS guys out this once, not necessarily because they're necessarily better in some way, but because my dad was a bushfire fighter and just at the moment, I’d like to give them the spotlight.

They risk their lives, often harming their own health in the process, sometimes giving their lives. They save properties in long arduous shifts that would kill a brown dog. They train at their own cost, give up their time freely, and leave their own jobs behind despite the fact they need to keep an income too.

And against every inbuilt instinct and shred of information being sent from their brain to their bodies, they walk TOWARDS THE FLAMES, stand their ground and fight to keep us safe.

How can you possibly mythologise or exaggerate that?

But back to the two guys I was speaking to from the Yass unit. They and many other fire-fighters there were “getting a bit older” and they were worried that not enough younger people are joining.

“There’s a lot of young fellas that say they might be able to drop out and help for a few hours, but that’s not how it works,” one said.

“They need to train, do the courses, and they have to be available for as long as they’re needed.”

Good point… but he made an even better one.

“It’s not like you even have to be from a farm to join the RFS or the SES. Anyone can help.”

Across Australia, certainly across NSW, there has been an outpouring of gratitude towards our firies. As there should be.

If some people really want to show their gratitude, perhaps they can consider joining the ranks of the RFS, or the SES, or something similar.

They could do with the help. They’ve already offered the help to us.

- If you want to leave a tribute to the firefighters you can do so here.


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