Meet Stevo, SA's friendly 'firey', now on his 4th Kangaroo Island bushfire deployment this season...
Updated: Jan 18
As parts of eastern Australia receive welcome rain, the bushfires ravaging the rest of the nation continue to challenge the bravest of souls. We speak with CFS volunteer Stephen Brewster (34) about what it's like to fight in Australia's unprecedented fire season.
Middle Rover Dam, Kangaroo Island, Stevo takes a lunch-break selfie.
Hello Stephen, tell us about how you came to be a volunteer fire-fighter and what exactly it is that you do?
I am with the Country Fire Service and am also a volunteer State Emergency Services Rescuer, two different agencies that assist the community in all sorts of incidents.
I grew up in a small rural town called Port Lincoln, located on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and been here ever since! I joined the Country Fire Service to help my local community and gain relevant skills and training in order to further a career as a seasonal firefighter with national parks and the Metropolitan Fire Service as retained.
So what's your "day job" at the moment then?
I am normally a full-time carer of the aged and the persons with disabilities.
In your opinion did the fires start earlier this year, and when did they start?
My first fire started on October the 10th in Port Lincoln. From there we had many smaller fires with a big one on November the 10th which had a response from all local emergency services; SES, DEWNR, MFS, CFS, SAPOL, SAAS and so on, including additional crews being brought in from around the state. We had a few more local fires after that too, but the focus now is on assisting at Kangaroo Island.
The Wanilla Fire on Jan 2nd, just before Stephen's first deployment to Kangaroo Island.
How many individual fires have you and your team put out so far this season, and what was the longest break you took between fires?
14 fires so far around Port Lincoln, but I have also had 5 deployments which can last up to 5 days each. It's been one of the most intensive fire seasons I can remember. Breaks can vary, lately my breaks have been averaging 2 days which is a requirement between deployments.
It's been one of the most intensive fire seasons I can remember.
What is the hardest part of the job?
Fighting a fire for 12 hours, giving absolutely everything you can, only for it to break containment the next day and seeing the life, property and the environmental impact. It can be super defeating. Of course, I am more than just a firefighter, so I have seen some horrific instances of impacted life as I also do Marine Rescues, Vertical Rescues, Road Crash Rescues and more.
What is the best part of the job?
When you rock up in a truck and see the excitement of a kids face, that is the payment us Volunteers get, which is absolutely priceless, hopefully it inspires them to become firefighters one day as well.
With fire burning in the distance, the SES team assists at an intersection where bulk water carriers fill up fire trucks, near Parndana, Kanagaroo Island. Stephen gave them a hand as the lady working the pump had "been there for 10 days and was only getting two hours of sleep every night..."
Tell us about your mates on the team? How does the process of putting out fires work? Do you have a buddy system or its under a group leader?
We work under the principles of AIIMS or Australian Inter-Agency Incident Management System, so on a truck we have a Crew Leader, who directs the crews and liaises with the Incident Management Team/Captain/Other Leader, the driver manages the truck, lights, pumps and so on. The crews that are on the ground work in pairs, so you always have a buddy that looks out for you, never run towards a fire without a buddy.
How does your partner cope with you being away and sometimes not in contact while fighting the fires?
My partner is an Ambulance officer and also a State Emergency Service Volunteer, so he is in the hot seat as well and understands the requirements. We manage to make it all work somehow!
There is a long-standing accusation about 'the Greens' being responsible for the lack of back-burning measures in Australia generally. What is your opinion on the weight of these claims in this current fire season?
The Greens have never told us what we can or cannot do. That is ultimately all there is to it. In National Parks, 'burn-offs' are under the control of DEWNR... And in city limits, it's under the control of the City Council, both work with local fire agencies.
There are legislative exceptions for all fire agencies and councils in order to do hazard reductions, of course for a 'burn-off' to be done successfully and safely there needs to be a sequence of events that line up perfectly such as moisture content, wind conditions, available crews and so on, our window for doing 'burn-offs' is reducing every year due to earlier starts to the fire season and late starts to winter.
In 2019 we were responding to fires weeks into winter, that generally doesn't normally happen for example... And we need to be mindful of weather conditions not just for the day the 'burn-off' takes place, but for several days, sometimes weeks thereafter.
As firefighters, were you shocked at PM Scott Morrison’s claim that volunteer fire fighters shouldn’t be paid because they “enjoy doing the work”?
The Prime Minister seems to be living in his own personal bubble and not all that concerned with firefighters or communities, but that has been how he is before he was even elected.
Do I enjoy doing the work? Sure. Do I enjoy helping out the community? You bet. Do I want to be there? Well. No. Not when life is at risk.
An ADF chopper assists with logistics at Kangaroo Island.
Farmers busy evacuating and getting livestock into safety near Pardarna, Kangaroo Island, while a CFS volunteer looks on.
The Kangaroo Island bound Sea Link ferry carries Stephen Brewster and nine other SES strike team members on the 9th of January 2020, including Michelle and Gordon from Whyalla, Michael and David from METRO South, Rebekka and David from Salisbury, Naomi from Roxby, Simon from Mount Barker and Jess from Warooka .
Do you have any suggestions as to what Australia could do to reduce the extremeness of its fire seasons? Is it about being more prepared in terms of fuel management? Is there more we can do as a nation? Does your team feel this season was as unprecedented as reports say, and, what does your team feel about climate change’s role in making it so extreme, or not so extreme?
My personal belief is that anyone who isn't living in the city limits should be required to undertake basic firefighting training, that way they will have a grasp of the risks, will be able to integrate with the fire agencies in times of need... You would be surprised how many lives are lost because people decided to stay, only to realise how significant the fire is and leave at the last minute when it really is too late.
You would be surprised how many lives are lost because people decided to stay, only to realise how significant the fire is and leave at the last minute when it really is too late.
And of course, training in burn over procedures as well, so if a fire is upon them, they know what actions to take, this is where non-fire agencies are dropping the ball, SA Ambulance, SAPOL and the like do have burn-over gear, but tend not to undertake the required yearly skills maintenance to be proficient at it.
Fuel management is a tricky situation as well, often communities will petition for us not to do fuel reductions for various reasons and we need to abide by local communities needs/wants/desires, but let me be clear, even in areas that had fuel reductions just a year or two ago are having fire rip through them again this year at unprecedented rates, fuel reduction is a tool, not a solution.
...but let me be clear, even in areas that had fuel reductions just a year or two ago are having fire rip through them again this year at unprecedented rates, fuel reduction is a tool, not a solution.
We need to be smarter about fire safety, fire is a part of Australia, climate change will make fire conditions more severe going forward, so we need to recognise and work with that, our fire station recognises this is an unusually busy fire season and that will likely become more of a norm.
Firefighters line up for breakfast before heading from the The Kangaroo Island base camp.
As you know our focus at Climate Change Cities is on human settlements. In your experience, can you imagine more and more of these kinds of fire seasons going forward, and what would your recommendations be to towns and farms who are vulnerable to fire?
In South Australia we tend to be a little more luckier than the Eastern States thanks to the Emergency Services Levy, so we have good equipment, uniforms, infrastructure that makes us extremely effective for the amount of crew we have, which is in stark contrast to some fire stations over in NSW and Victoria, I think those states should emulate South Australia's approach.
Hot spots being doused at the plantations near Middle River over the Christmas period.
Smaller towns should implement fire warning alarms and if the geography calls for it, fire lookout towers... And obviously have Basic Fire Fighting and Burnover Drills as part of the school curriculum in those areas.
Also implementing better fire defences could make the difference, roof-top sprinkler systems, more water sources for trucks to source water from, more substantial mineral earth breaks in vulnerable areas and better communication with local communities. We should also have our own dedicated air-firefighting fleet, currently we "rent" our appliances from northern states during their off-fire season, but with fire seasons starting to overlap, it's becoming logistically more difficult.
We should also have our own dedicated air-firefighting fleet, currently we "rent" our appliances from northern states during their off-fire season, but with fire seasons starting to overlap, it's becoming logistically more difficult.
Plenty of great ideas, thank you. What is the prognosis at Kangaroo Island right now? For how much longer is it expected to burn?
Could take weeks or months, no definitive dates. The fire front is a good 370km long. Just one spark to cross a containment line can make the situation turn 'south' again.
Ok best you guys get back on it! Thank you Stevo!
As always, happy to answer anymore questions, anytime! Climate change is everyone's responsibility and so is fire safety.
Photography kindly supplied by Stephen Brewster. If you would like to support fire and emergency services in the Cuddle Creek and Kangaroo Island fires please donate here.
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