Brian Woollard has been a firefighter in our region for nearly 32 years, so in light of the recent bushfires, we wanted to get his perspective on the situation and some advice on how to be best prepared for the continued fire season ahead.
Hi Brian. Can you tell us about your connection with the Coffs Coast?
I was born and raised in Bellingen. I have been here all my life, which is not a bad spot to be, really!
You are a firefighter here in the region. Can you tell us about your role and what that involves?
I am the station commander of Fire and Rescue in Bellingen. My job is to maintain the operational capability of the station and the safety of my crew when at an incident.
How long have you been with the fire brigade, and what has your role been through that career?
I’ve been here 32 years in January. I started out as a firefighter, and after about 10 years, I went into the Deputy Captain’s role, which I was in for about 17 years. Now I’ve been Captain for the past five years.
We have recently been seeing some of the worst conditions for bushfires that we’ve had for many years. What are the factors that contribute to fire ratings going up?
High fuel content. Any fire is like a triangle; take away the fuel, you won’t have any fire. The three things that make up the triangle are heat, fuel and oxygen. We can’t take the oxygen away, nor the heat, so that leaves the fuel.
What has it been like to come face-to-face with fires of this scale?
We call them dynamic days (the ones you usually see on the news) when the winds pick up, and it becomes quite dangerous. We have extensive training for these situations, and each firefighter’s priority is their own safety first, other people’s safety second and property third, so if you can save a property in the line of fire, it’s great, but you have to make sure you can do it with the safety of yourself and others coming first.
Many have been commenting on how great the communication has been with the public during this period of high fire danger. What were some of the ways that you got word out to your local community?
The “Fires Near Me” app is great to stay up to date on where the fires are. Social media is great for spreading word fast throughout the community. Some towns may have town meetings; Fire and Rescue and Rural Fire Service held a joint meeting here in Bellingen, which saw about 300 people attending.
Where are some areas you can evacuate to if threatened by bushfire?
Fire is uncertain because we can’t always guarantee to be there to assist with everyone in rural areas when there is a dynamic day happening. Urban towns like Coffs Harbour, Bellingen, Urunga and others in the area are the safest place to be when there is a dynamic day happening. People in rural areas must be mindful that if a fire does come through, you may have your power cut off (which could mean internet and communication are affected) and be unable to receive help.
How are teams organised to face these fires?
Fire and Rescue organise strike teams to assist the Rural Fire Service with the fires in the rural areas, and we still maintain fire protection in our own town. They have teams on the ground from different stations, and they will put them together in tankers, so strike teams will consist of three – four tankers that form one team.
We have some of the biggest fires burning currently that have been burning for quite some time. How long is it likely to be before they’re extinguished?
It’s unsure when they will be completely extinguished, and we are reliant on rain. We would need a good soaking rain to come through to help extinguish those fires.
How do you prepare to protect yourself from a bushfire?
The first thing is to create your fire plan with your partner or family. Be aware of what each fire danger rating means and use them to determine whether you stay and/or when you are going to leave. Prepare your important belongings early (passports, photos, etc.) and take only what you need. If you are with children, disabled persons, someone with illness or the elderly, please leave earlier. Inform family or friends if possible whether you are going to stay or go. If you are in doubt, leave as early as possible.
What can the community do to try and protect their house from an incoming bush fire?
Clear away all leaf litter, long and dry grasses, and any thick undergrowth near your home. Clear the gutters of any leaves or debris. If you have any overhanging branches over your house, try to clear them in a safe manner. Be sure to remove any flammables to a safe place and away from your home, in case of an ember attack.
At the end of the day, help yourself as much as you can, because with the situation at the moment a truck may not be able to get to your property. If you are unable to protect your property and you know a fire is coming, leave as soon as you can. You can always replace a property, but you can never replace a life.
What can people do to assist or contribute to the firefighting effort and members of the community who have been affected by the fires?
There has been a huge support from all over the country with the fires. Any donation is very much appreciated. You can donate directly to the SES, Rural Fire Service www.rfs.nsw.gov.au or any number of organisations like Red Cross or similar charities that are supporting fire relief efforts.