Mette Davis is a firefighter based at the Doonan Rural Fire Brigade Station. PHOTO: Warren Lynam
Mette Davis is a firefighter based at the Doonan Rural Fire Brigade Station. PHOTO: Warren Lynam

In the line of fire: women battling Coast blazes

Weekend Magazine:

WHY DO THOUSANDS of Australians put their lives on the line to battle bushfires?

Why leave your family and home to protect others?

Why volunteer to be a firefighter?

These are questions that have been on the lips of many this bushfire season and while individual answers are likely to vary, the resounding stance is that people volunteer to give back to the community.

It can also be extremely rewarding, according to Mette Davis, a volunteer firefighter with Doonan Rural Fire Brigade.

Mette is not someone you would typically pick out of the crowd to be a firefighter.

Short-statured and petite, Mette is set to celebrate her 64th birthday this year.

She said neither age nor gender should be considered if you have the will and drive to do something for your community.

This will be Mette's fourth year as a volunteer firefighter and she said she doesn't plan on giving up the role any time soon.

"I joined at the ripe old age of 60 and haven't looked back," she said.

"It's just such a great organisation to be a part of."

Mette retired from her office job at the age of 57 and moved to an acreage property in Doonan.

Mette Davis, volunteer firefighter with Doonan Rural Fire Brigade. PHOTO: Warren Lynam
Mette Davis, volunteer firefighter with Doonan Rural Fire Brigade. PHOTO: Warren Lynam

She said she had always been active and was looking to do something useful with her spare time.

After speaking with her neighbour who was a volunteer firefighter, she made her way down to her local brigade and put her hand up to help.

At the time, she was the only woman in the brigade.

"There hadn't been any women in the brigade for a while but the guys were all fantastic," she said.

"They were all just really welcoming and they didn't want me to feel uncomfortable being the only female."

Mette is now one of three women volunteering with the brigade, with another three women set to join after completing their training.

"There has definitely been a lot more interest in joining the brigade since everything that has been happening this bushfire season," she said.

"It's great to see other girls coming along and wanting to help out the community.

"As the eldest one here, I definitely feel like a bit of a mother to them. I just really love seeing the young girls get involved in it.

"It is really challenging but also really rewarding."

Mette recently obtained her truck licence.

She said while she still sometimes experienced a look of "surprise" when she showed up to fight fires, the community support was overwhelming.

"There is no stigma around women fighting fires and the community are just happy to see someone doing something to help out," she said.

BRAVE ACT: A monstrous and devastating fire ripped through Peregian Springs, Peregian Breeze and Peregian Beach late last year. Volunteer firefighters like Mette Davis were on the frontline helping battle the blazes. Photo Patrick Woods / Sunshine Coast Daily.
BRAVE ACT: A monstrous and devastating fire ripped through Peregian Springs, Peregian Breeze and Peregian Beach late last year. Volunteer firefighters like Mette Davis were on the frontline helping battle the blazes. Photo Patrick Woods / Sunshine Coast Daily.

"There are still times when you find people surprised to see you there. At the Kingaroy fires, I was in the back of the truck with another girl and a landowner, a real salt-of-the-land kind of guy was at the front … he was swearing his head off.

"When he realised we were in the back, he couldn't stop apologising as he didn't expect us to be there. We just laughed it off and told him we were used to it!"

Mette has helped fight fires across the region, and was recently called out to help out in Kingaroy and battle the Peregian and Cooroibah fires.

She said it was during these major call-outs that she truly appreciated the task at hand and the effort that went in to co-ordinating a response during a major blaze.

Mette Davis is a firefighter based at the Doonan Rural Fire Brigade Station. PHOTO: Warren Lynam
Mette Davis is a firefighter based at the Doonan Rural Fire Brigade Station. PHOTO: Warren Lynam

"It was a massive learning curve and I had no idea what to expect,' she said.

"Obviously you do all the training but until you put your hand up and actually go out there and experience it, it's just not the same.

"I learnt so much and I'm glad to have been a part of the effort."

Mette plans to go down to Northern NSW during the recovery phase to lend a helping hand.

She said while it was great to volunteer your time, it was also important to know your limits.

"Whenever I can help out, I do, but because of who I am, I also don't want to be a nuisance,' she said.

"I don't want to go somewhere that I know will be too much for me.

"We are all trained the same way but we all have different strengths.

"And it is OK to realise when you might not be able to help. "

As well as providing frontline services, Mette plays a crucial part behind the scenes at the station.

She mows the lawn at the station, tidies up the office, replenishes the food supplies and changes the fire rating signs.

Every four days, she receives an email advising her of what the fire rating will be over the next several days and each morning on her way to the gym, she changes the signs from severe to low, depending on the fire warning for that day.

Support for the volunteer services is always welcomed and Mette encouraged anyone interested to join.

"It doesn't matter about your age or gender, just give it a go," she said.

"If you never try you will never do anything."

Area Director for Caloundra QFES Rural Fire Services Matt Inwood reiterated this message, saying volunteers were a critical part of firefighting.

Inspector Inwood has spent 28 years in the fire service, both as a volunteer and as a paid employee.

BRAVE ACT: A monstrous and devastating fire ripped through Peregian Springs, Peregian Breeze and Peregian Beach late last year. Volunteer firefighters like Mette Davis were on the frontline helping battle the blazes. Photo: John McCutcheon / Sunshine Coast Daily
BRAVE ACT: A monstrous and devastating fire ripped through Peregian Springs, Peregian Breeze and Peregian Beach late last year. Volunteer firefighters like Mette Davis were on the frontline helping battle the blazes. Photo: John McCutcheon / Sunshine Coast Daily

He initially joined as a volunteer firefighter in NSW and then eventually gave up his full-time position in a private industry to take on a paid role.

"It's been a big thing to be able to go out there and help the community in a time of need," he said.

"I just wanted to do something to give back and to help protect people."

Inspector Inwood took on his position at Caloundra three months ago.

He said it was a "hectic" time to begin his role but it threw him in to the deep end and really go the ball rolling.

"I had to go in and learn very quickly on the run with all of the fires we had up at Peregian and Noosa,' he said.

"I was so impressed with the team up here.

"We have so many great volunteers here who just go out and get the job done."

The damage this fire season has been unprecedented and thousands of volunteer firefighters have put their lives on the line to protect homes, wildlife and infrastructure.

As a result of the efforts over the past few months, many have called for pay or compensation for volunteer firefighters.

QFES Rural Fire Service regional manager Wayne Waltisbuhl said the push to pay volunteers would "complicate" the service.

"We volunteer to support the community and we don't do it for money," he said.

"I understand some people walk away from the workplaces to help out but we always tell people that their family and their jobs should be priority.

"Payment for volunteers is complicated and has the ability to erode volunteering, as volunteering is just that."

Wayne has spent the past 40 years battling fires, starting his career in forestry in southeast Queensland in 1979.

He has experienced a number of changes to how fires are managed, but he said the one thing that stood the test of the time was the commitment of volunteers.

"The rural fire brigade was started by neighbours wanting to help other neighbours," he said.

"The forestry department used to be the head of bushfire management and would lend equipment to the rural firefighters.

"Then there was a real flip and more funding was put in to the rural fire brigades.

"The rural fire brigade evolved through community spirit."

Wayne said he believed the severity and intensity of this bushfire season was caused by a number of factors.

He said a lack of rainfall over the past 12 months with prolonged periods of hot dry days meant land management was affected.

When considering the Peregian fires, he said this combination had been particularly detrimental.

"The coastal bushland in Peregian should get burnt every 25 years," he said.

"It needs a hot fire to bust open the seed coating and for all seeds to spread.

"Now with all the people living in that area, it is really hard to put ecological burning programs in place.

"It is a combination of lots of factors that led to this season being as bad as it has been."

Looking back through history, Wayne said intense and severe fire seasons often came in blocks of three, meaning this year's events may repeat in the 2020/21 season.

"If we don't get decent rainfall leading in to winter, we could be right back where we are now at the end of the year."

Wayne said as the training for volunteer firefighting often required anywhere from six months to a year's worth of hands-on experience, now was the ideal time for those willing to help out to begin the process.

"It's not an overnight process," he said.

"We want to encourage people to help out but also realise what is they are signing up for.

"It can be one of the most rewarding things you will do and it's corny but once you start, it gets in your blood."

To find out more about volunteering with QFES visit www.qfes.qld.gov.au.


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