Malmsbury's local heroes

Hannah Carrodus meets two men who put their lives on the line for their community.

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They put their lives on the line, are on call 24/7 and have saved their town from burning no less than three times. They are the Malmsbury CFA members, a group of dedicated volunteers who personify community spirit.

John Newlands was relaxing at Tony Stephens’ house on January 22, 2009, when he saw a little puff of smoke in the distance.

Within seconds the Malmsbury CFA volunteers’ pagers went off, and minutes later they were at the scene of the fire, near the Daylesford-Malmsbury Road. It was a flaming grassfire that grew in size from one hectare to three hectares in a matter of minutes. It was uncontrollable pretty well from the get-go.

Throughout the day flames more than 15 metres high raged across tinder dry paddocks and forest, coming within 300 metres of the town and burning 400 hectares of land.

Tony, John and their fellow CFA team members spent all day in the thick of the action, battling to save people’s houses. The rest of the town was evacuated.

Thanks to the efforts of the CFA no one was injured and no property damaged, but it could easily have been a different story.

“It woke up the township and the brigade to an extent that we need to put a lot more work in educating the community and working within the brigade to increase our readiness and response,” says Tony, the Malmsbury CFA’s first lieutenant.

In the following weeks, months and years the Malmsbury CFA dedicated numerous hours to running forums, setting up a Facebook page and doing everything in its power to drill in messages about fire safety and prevention.

The messages seem to have sunk in and the prevalence and severity of fires has decreased. That is, until this year, when fast-moving grassfires on Australia Day and February 4 once again put the town at risk. Thankfully, thanks to the CFA, no one was injured and no houses destroyed.

“The great thing about the CFA isn’t the strength of each individual brigade, it’s the groups that look after those brigades and the CFA as a whole,” says Tony.

The great thing about the CFA isn’t the strength of each individual brigade, it’s the groups that look after those brigades and the CFA as a whole - Tony Stephens, Malmsbury CFA

Malmsbury Primary School principal Carolyn Tavener describes the CFA in slightly different terms.

“They’re legends, they’re fantastic!” she says.

“When you think of the number of fires that have happened this year – they’re amazing.”

Ms Tavener has had a fair bit of contact with the CFA members, who come to the school every year to talk to the students about fire safety and prevention.

“The kids are like, ‘The CFA are awesome!' They get to use the hose; it’s very exciting,” she says.

Vicky Howell, owner of Malmsbury’s Malmalade bed and breakfast and retail store, echoes Ms Tavener’s sentiments.

“They’re angels,” she says. “I admire them greatly.”

Ms Howell’s shop and bed and breakfast is across the road from the CFA headquarters and she often sees them racing out, responding to the latest emergency.

“I see how fast they react and they’re just like…,” she snaps her fingers. “It must impact on their lives.”

The Malmsbury CFA is made up of a diverse group of 30 volunteers, many of whom battle blazes or attend accident scenes throughout the night then go on to work full-time jobs during the day.

Tony joined up eight years ago when he moved to Malmsbury from Melbourne.

“The CFA is an organisation where you’d never see such a diverse group of people working together, but it’s the common cause … people do it half for the community and half for the friendship,” he explains.

When asked if he’s ever feared for his life when putting out a fire, Tony says, “I think you’re just too busy to be scared.”

Second lieutenant John’s association with the CFA dates back to 1968, when he joined the Scoresby CFA as a junior, aged 11. He had a long hiatus from the organisation when he relocated to Melbourne as an adult, but re-joined when he moved to Malmsbury eight years ago.

Both men have children and full-time jobs, with Tony working as an office manager for the Department of Defence in Bendigo and John as a Victoria Police Regional Property manager in Melbourne, where he commutes to every day.

Both are currently on annual leave, which they deliberately scheduled around their CFA duties. They say in the past two weeks they’ve had about two dinners at home.

As well as dealing with emergencies in Malmsbury they also work closely with neighbouring brigades, including Kyneton and Gisborne, providing and receiving assistance when needed.

Both stress that the Malmsbury brigade gets a lot of help at any given time, and insist that the Malmsbury CFA didn’t saved the town single-handedly.

But regardless of the assistance they get, their bravery and selflessness is undeniable.

They not only fight fires but also run educational programs for the general public, mentoring programs for newer members and debriefing sessions for their peers and the community after traumatic events.

“We let them debrief and release their emotions,” Tony says. 

"Some people become quite distressed."

They often attend road accidents as well; the first incident Tony attended after joining up was a fatal car crash.

“You learn to have a degree of separation," he says of his coping method.

They're protectors, educators and counsellors and the community's unsung heroes. 

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