Nearly 40 percent of people in rural and regional Australia give freely of their time and expertise, fulfilling a vital need and providing essential services in their communities.

Story By Jane Milburn

The pager on Neil Beer’s bedside table beeps loudly – it’s 3.49am. As the Country Fire Authority’s (CFA) Yea group officer reads the message, he is already on the way. Follow-up messages specify the map page and reference numbers, and a request for more fire trucks. Within a short space of time, 40 CFA volunteers are at work on Ross and Mary Armstrong’s Yea cattle property “Island Bend” dealing with a hayshed fire in which 150 big round bales have succumbed to spontaneous combustion. At 6.30am Neil radios the communications officer requesting breakfast for 40, and by 9am things are under control.
“The response from the CFA was amazing,” Ross Armstrong says. “They arrived so quickly I couldn’t believe it and it’s impossible to say what might have happened without their help.” Every night Neil sleeps with his pager beside the bed and clips it on his belt every morning. “I don’t feel dressed without it on – it just becomes part of your life,” he says.
The call they fear most is when wildfire takes hold, as it did in the 2006–07 fire season, during which volunteers undertook 69 days of firefighting around the Great Dividing Range in eastern Victoria.
CFA Ararat group officer Charlie de Fegely was one of 500 firefighters who battled the Deep Lead and Grampians fires in 2006 that saw 40 percent of the Grampians National Park and 41,000 hectares of private property burned. The extensive destruction of farms and livestock meant that when the immediate fire danger abated, the volunteer effort switched to the recovery.
As well as being CFA’s Ararat group officer, Charlie is Ararat branch secretary of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF). “When neighbours have suffered severe adversity, our natural instinct is to want to go and help them get back together,” he says. “Volunteering is something that rural landholders just do automatically.”
Volunteers give time, an increasingly precious commodity, and expertise. About one in three Australians (34 percent) volunteer, according to the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Voluntary Work, Australia survey, but it is known to be higher in country communities.
Farm organisations such as the VFF have the capacity to mobilise their membership into a formidable volunteer force. VFF president Simon Ramsay says that in times of exceptional circumstances or disasters, such as floods and bushfires, members from its 260 branches provide a coordinated volunteer workforce for the recovery effort in affected rural communities.
In the case of the Grampians fires, teams visited landholders and worked out what assistance was required, and fencing and fodder requirements were then coordinated through VFF members. “Teams made up of DPI [Department of Primary Industries] staff, local vets and farmers went from property to property assessing burnt stock,” Charlie says. “Severely burned animals had to be destroyed, and members of local field and game clubs assisted farmers with that because they had rifles and licences. The teams buried 62,000 sheep and 1000 cattle. After we buried the stock, we started the clean up and rebuilding boundary fences to contain remaining stock and coordinating loads of hay because the pasture was gone.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #57

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2008