CFA battles decline in ageing small towns 

VICTORIA’S Country Fire Authority will increasingly rely on cities such as Warrnambool and Geelong to battle bushfires as volunteer numbers dwindle in ageing rural communities. 

There are approximately 8500 volunteers in three fire regions covering the south-west between Portland, Hamilton, Warrnambool and Colac. 

Another 7000 volunteers are based in the Geelong region. 

CFA Barwon South-West regional director Bob Barry told The Standard ageing brigade members and fewer younger people to fill their boots was leading to the decline. 

“We believe the pressure is increasing,” Mr Barry said. 

But he said numbers in places like Warrnambool were steady. 

“In the highly urbanised townships people see it as a recreational activity. 

“We can take additional support into those rural areas as a reserve force when they may be struggling.” 

Mr Barry would not name specific areas in the region struggling for members but said it was an overall problem for rural communities. 

The CFA once boasted a statewide volunteer army exceeding 100,000 people — but Mr Barry said the 1998 Linton bushfire tragedy which claimed the lives of five firefighters forced the CFA to tighten up training and requirements for those serving on brigade trucks.

“I co-ordinated their funerals ... we have a safety-first policy now,” Mr Barry said. 

Some communities are launching their own campaigns to bolster ranks. 

At Cobden — surrounded by thick pockets of forest and only capable of filling one truck on call-outs — the local brigade went on the front foot in October in a push to gain more firefighters in time for summer. 

Group officer Mark Roberts told The Standard the brigade gained an extra 12 volunteers after throwing open its shed doors for a Sunday barbecue. 

“It’s increased our capability across the district. Not just locally but if we have to go away anywhere,” Mr Roberts said.

“People don’t think about it over winter. They get complacent. It’s only when they see the smoke on the horizon.” 

Nine of the new firefighters have completed minimum skills training with another three to take theory tests in the coming fortnight. “They’ll be ready for the fire season,” Mr Roberts said. 

Mr Roberts said vegetation around Cobden was still green while grassland around the Stony Rises was fully cured and dry. 

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