A lifetime fighting fires honoured by Goorambat CFA

By Simon Ruppert

A ceremony in the Goorambat Mechanics Hall last month marked 60 years of service for CFA life member Mick Johnson.

While the occasion almost brought a tear to his eyes, the reality for Mick, and his generation, is that volunteering with the CFA is just what you do.

And it is something he still does - with no plans to step back.

And Mick has seen it all.

From the 1962 fires in Victoria, to Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday and the bushfires ravaging through some 13 million hectares of Australia right now - Mick has dropped everything and headed to the front-line.

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A fact that was confirmed when he had to postpone a visit to The Ensign for this article as he headed Traralgon last week.

When Mick first signed up for the CFA in 1959, he said it was just something everybody did.

“In those days you just joined CFA when you were old enough,” he said.

“There wasn't many people around, so if you heard the siren you dropped everything and went.

“We did very similar things to what we do now.

Mick has been fighting fires across the state for 60 years

“The operations haven’t changed a lot, but they've improved the trucks.

“After Ash Wednesday there were more modern and better trucks going out, which is something the CFA is still doing.

“We are getting better trucks and equipment all the time.

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“The firefighting side has changed a little bit, because of health and safety, and we also have the air support now.

“We have a strike team leader on the ground and he will be in charge. He talks to the helicopters to direct them.

“And that works well. The trucks have numbers on the roof, so if there's a big issue they can target a certain teams with water.

“But the smoke is always a problem as they can't always see the ground from the air.”

Mick said he was often asked how fires had changed throughout the years and his biggest observation was there seemed to be a lot more occurring.

“This one is particularly bad,” he said of the fires burning right now.

Mick said having air-support during fires is one of the biggest changes since he started

“The new evacuation regulations are helping.

“A lot of people are getting out of harm's way before fires arrive.

“However, one issue is that people like to have trees and shrubbery near their houses - it's possibly the reason they moved to the country.

“But many houses we attend are surrounded by trees and plants, which puts them at a higher risk.

“But people like their gardens, so they've just go to hope they don't burn.”

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Mick said when it came to protecting property it was often a case of first-seen, first saved.

He said there was not necessarily a science to it.

Often it was a case of saving the first property they came across, then working on others nearby.

“We were up in Armidale recently, we were based in the uni,” Mick said.

“Then we headed down to Corryong when the fires came. They were pretty bad.

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“People have asked me if it is frightening to be in a place like that. It is, but you just don’t have time to be frightened.

“We saved the famous Towong grandstand, where the Phar Lap movie was filmed.

“In that area we saved 25 houses.

“Sadly we lost two, but we just couldn’t get to them all.

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“At times it was literally raining fire, I don’t know if many people have ever seen that but it does - it rains fire.”

Mick said while being part of the CFA was important to him, he was proud to have received his 60-year service medal.

“I know I've been a member for a while. But all of a sudden it's been 60 years,” he said.

“And it has mostly been at Goorambat.

“When I started I did one or two months at Devenish.

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“Then I did 12 months at Stewarton, which was a separate CFA back then, before moving to Goorambat.

“It's only recently that Stewarton and Goormabt have combined.

“But I would say, in total, I've done about 58 years with Goorambat CFA.”

With the present fire season predicted to last another four months, Mick's advice to people is simple.

“It is very important for people to stay vigilant,” he said.

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“Even though we've had a slight reprieve in the weather most of the fires are still burning.

“We have very hot fires in the bush we just can't get at and all we need is a day of strong winds and they can start another fire 10 to 15 km away.

“When we were in Traralgon we had a wind change, and the helicopters were getting to us every seven minutes, four of them. It's very lucky we had them.”

Mick said he had no plans to step back from his work with the CFA.

“Whilst I'm still fit and can still use my knowledge, I will stay part of the CFA,” he said.

“I will keep being a member of the CFA as long as I can.”