There we sat. The two young Rural Fire Service people across the table from me had come out to assess the bushfire risk of an overgrown patch of scrub. At last it looked like something might be done.

Things had changed in the 30 years since I was in the local bushfire brigade, this eager young pair were in military uniforms, black with arterial blood red epaulettes. I seized the opportunity to enlighten them.

“In the good old days, we’d just burn it off,” I said, making a sweeping gesture with my arms. “No permission, no rules – not even a fire truck! We’d go down the station, get a couple of drip-torches, run a fire line along the downwind side and go away. It would take a few hours for it to burn through. All done and dusted.”

They looked at one another and the young sheila piped: “You must make sure you have an evacuation plan. Do you know where the nearest safe assembly point is?”

I was ready for this type of corporate culture drivel and casually opened the inch thick fire file I’d kept over the years. It was showdown time.

Brandishing a document from the file I glared back over my reading glasses.

“You don’t understand. The Shire Council has done an EIS which recommended rotational burning. There are koalas, goannas, rare birds and plants in there. Friendly fire gets rid of the ground fuel, it makes the scrub safe from summer firestorms and regenerates the flora. This bush needs a good burnoff. Agree?”

Confident that my watertight logic had won the day I sat back, smiled and clasped my hands over my more than generous midriff.

Once again the pair looked at each other, shook their heads and the bloke this time had his own words of wisdom.

Brushtail possum in WINCS care

“It’s not an ‘Asset Protection Zone.’ Haven’t you seen the coloured map?

"We only burn off Asset Protection Zones. How about you clean out your gutters and get rid of flammable litter and dead wood around the house – rake up the leaves?”

“No no no no no no ! You really don’t understand young fella,” I replied.

“We have always burnt off in winter out here. The locals want it done and before the area was settled the native tribes had it smouldering all the time. Have you asked the Aboriginal elders about it? I have, and they want it burnt off too.”

“Tell you what,” chimed in the young expert. We’ll look into it and send you a report.” They drove away in a white 4WD truck with bushfire service stripes and two coats of arms.

Their report came the other day. They still refuse to burn it off. And me? Well, I’m raking up leaves, cleaning out the gutters and saying a silent prayer. 

Brave enough to speak out and stare down bushfire service ostracism, Geoff Walker is a retired Deputy Captain Lemon Tree Passage Bushfire Brigade, journalist The Port Stephens Examiner & the Newcastle Herald & a retired schoolteacher.