“I remember standing there and you can hear the fire coming for you, you can hear the tree’s crackling, it’s loud, and that’s that moment where you go ‘yep, alright, bring it on’.” – Rachel Rizzo, CFA volunteer.
Three courageous yet humble young women are helping burn down gender inequality in CFA volunteer numbers, devoting their time to the Devon Meadows CFA and fighting the recent Bunyip blaze. Bridgett Young, 21, Rachel Rizzo, 26 and mum-of-three Carly Damman, 26, help make up the small figure of just 11,916 female volunteer firefighters in Victoria compared to 41,116 males.
“When you say ‘firefighter’, when you imagine ‘firefighter’, you don’t imagine females. To be apart of it – not just sit there and do nothing, but be a part of the crew and playing a role – is unlike anything else”, Bridgett said.
In the wake of the Bunyip bushfires that saw more than 15,400 hectares, 29 homes and 69 sheds engulfed in flames, Bridgett speaks of her ordeal being trapped for more than eight hours surrounded by burning sheds and falling trees.
“We were trapped in the sense that we couldn’t get out and go home. We didn’t have food, no one could come in to get us out and we couldn’t physically get ourselves out with just our chainsaws,” Bridgett said.
Bridgett was a part of three strike teams over the fire danger period. On the Sunday morning during the fire period, Bridgett boarded the fire truck at Devon Meadows brigade about 5am. Unbeknown to her, she would not be returning home until 3am the following morning.
“You don’t check what time it is or what job it is, you just go,” Bridgett said.
When she arrived at a property with multiple houses, Bridgett and her strike team began asset protection, which involves protecting houses and sheds from oncoming fire and embers.
“The strike team leader contacted us over the radio and said the fire was coming from two angles onto the property that we were on. That was a really busy hour or so because it just all hit at the one time. We were just trying to protect the houses and as many sheds as we could,”Bridgett said.
“We didn’t know at that stage we were trapped in there, we just thought we were going to be there until 7pm and would be released. It wasn’t until about 5pm when we went out on to the road and saw the amount of trees that were on fire laying across the road that we knew we wouldn’t be getting out.”
There had been talk that perhaps CFA bulldozers could clear the road of burning fallen trees but, as night came, the team realised their only escape route would remain blocked.
“We were told basically to call our bosses and tell them that we weren’t going to be in the next day. The fire moved really fast,” she said.
Bridgett described the feeling as “a rush” because she was confident in the directions she was being given by CFA leaders.
“You’ve got so much adrenaline pumping through you, it feels like apprehension. You know that when you’re asked to do something they’re saying it with confidence that you can, they’re not putting you in danger,” she said.
According to the girls, Devon Meadows Brigade is a close-knit family.
“With CFA, we are all quite close. So when you’re facing a fire you know the person next to you has your back and they know you’ve got theirs. In these situations, you revert back to your training and your faith in your crew,” Rachel said.
Carly was also a member of strike teams on the following Wednesday and on Thursday alongside Bridgett.
“It was really confronting, being a massive fire and my first of that scale,” she said.
“The fire got so close to some people’s properties that all their garden beds were burnt, but firefighters were able to save their homes. Seeing the devastation really puts what we do into perspective.
“We dealt with a lot of residents who were very shaken up. A lot had lost sheds, cars, tractors.”
Bridgett added: “One of the families we helped had managed to save their house, which was pretty amazing. But the house right next door had absolutely nothing left of it, just the chimney.”
“A lot of the residents were more upset about losing livestock than sheds, because obviously, that’s their livelihood.”
Rachel, a fifth-generation firefighter who has volunteered for 15 years, said it was all about protecting yourself when you arrive to a call out.
“It comes down to looking after yourself on the ground. I went to an accident that was unfortunately a fatal. I was on fire protection, my job was to keep an eye on the bonnet and make sure there was no flames. So I positioned myself in a way that I couldn’t see through the windscreen – because I knew there was someone potentially deceased inside. If its not necessary for me to see it, I’m not going to put myself in a position where I see it,” she said.
Bridgett agreed those situations could be “quite confronting”.
The girls applauded the CFA’s debriefing protocols and said the person in charge always considered how much exposure and experience a volunteer has had and gives them a role that reflects that, so no one is thrown into seeing something they aren’t prepared for.
“The amount of support you get afterwards though, is out of this world,” Bridgett said.
Rachel described the post-event peer support program provided to volunteers by the CFA. “After a call like the fatality we will come back to the station and meet with a peer. We sit down as a little family and have a discussion about what we saw. Your crew leader always checks in on you in the days following. We have a whole army of people who are looking out for us. The good thing about peers is that they are firefighters. A lot of fireys do struggle to talk to someone that has no idea about fire or the things we do actually see,” she said.
The girls attend training every Monday and have a rotating Sunday roster where they take the truck for a drive and check all equipment is at an operational standard. Rachel has also re-started the running team that the Devon Meadows brigade had not had for more than 15 years. The running team is a “friendly competition” between brigades involving six events, focused on building skills, teamwork and use of equipment.
“It’s a release so you’re not just going to trauma all the time. It’s a way to network with other brigades so when we do go to call outs your working with people you’re familiar with,” Rachel said.
Volunteering with the CFA is a way for the girls to satisfy their want to help others and the community, and has been a great way to build self-confidence.
“I work an average 9am to 5pm job and felt I wanted to do something that would allow me to help others. I had no idea I would be stepping into an extended family and the greatest thing that I’ve ever participated in. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Bridgett said.
Carly said it had made her stronger. “I feel more capable than before. I feel stronger than before. It has made me see I can do things I never dreamt I’d be able to do. My kids tell everyone ‘mummy’s a firefighter’ and are so excited by the idea. You get a great sense of pride in being able to help the community,” she said.