5 Min Read

A Burning Desire to Fight Fire

The Australian summer. The season for fun in the sun. Barbeques with family and friends, cricket with mates, and some of the best swimming, sailing and snorkelling spots found anywhere in the world. Picture perfect selfie moments that would take pride of place on any social media platform.

The Australian summer is also the season for bushfires. A menace that puts millions of lives in danger and costs millions of dollars—together with the ever-present threat to animals and habitats.

There are 45,000 to 60,000 bushfires in Australia every year, with WA experiencing about 5,500 of them. This makes protecting life and land an absolutely priority. The absolute priority of Australia’s firefighting force—much of which is crewed by unpaid workers.

Volunteers that include the good folk at the Parkerville Volunteer Bushfire Brigade in the Perth hills. Where Captain Mark Bush and his team of 40 firefighters give up their time, effort and energy to protect life and land in one of the country’s more prone areas to bushfires—for free.

“We have roughly 40 operational firefighters,” Bush says. “We’re all volunteers, nobody’s paid.” Which adds gravitas to the enormous effort these firefighters put in when one then looks at the area they look after.

The Parkerville township, its surrounds, the Shire of Mundaring as well as the John Forrest National Park that spans over 2,700 hectares or more than 26 square kilometres.

Furthermore, Bush says that whilst his brigade responds to fires within his team’s jurisdiction, it can also be called upon to aid in operations elsewhere as needed. “We go anywhere in the state,” says Bush.

“A couple of years ago, I spent Boxing Day to New Year’s Day out on the Eyre Highway at Balladonia,” a rural location that’s over 900 kilometres from Perth.

Parkerville crew fighting the 2014 Parkerville fire.  Photo: DFES.

When asked about the number of fires his team attend to during any given summer, Bush says it could be up to 10 a month. “Sometimes, several fires a day,” he adds. Yes, several fires a day!

The amount of time it takes to fight those fires can vary, with the big ones taking days to bring under control. The most recent big fire, in Wooroloo in 2021, had his team working 24 hours a day for a whole week as it travelled 26 kilometres and destroyed 86 houses and two fire trucks. It tore through over 10,000 hectares of land. 

The Parkerville fire of 2014 that burned for 20 days was Bush’s first big fire—with the one at Balladonia his most challenging. “That was an interesting job because there was no water out there,” he says. So how does one fight fire without water?

By using bulldozers and front-end loaders to ‘track’ the fire—scraping firebreaks several metres wide around it to contain the fire. If the blaze jumps the firebreak, as it did at Balladonia repeatedly, more are installed—the fire continues to be tracked until the blaze is contained.

Expressions of gratitude following the 2021 Wooroloo fire. Photo: Mark Bush.

When it comes to the safety of properties close to bushlands, Bush believes the houses are most at risk from flying embers that ‘rain’ on the dwellings. On windy days, these embers can travel a few kilometres and ignite anything flammable—such as dried leaves in the gutters and on lawns and garden beds, and nylon flyscreens.

They can also get into the homes through evaporative air conditioners that suck the embers in and blow them all through the house. Hence the reason bushfire warnings alert householders to turn these air conditioners off and keep the filter pads wet.

There are several ways bushfires can be started—lightning strikes, cigarette butts and sparks from machinery and off-road vehicles such as trail bikes. The Wooroloo bushfire was allegedly lit by sparks from an angle grinder.

The most alarming of ways bushfires can be started is by arsonists. When asked what goes through the minds of people who deliberately light fires and put people and property in danger, Bush answers, “No I can’t understand it. There’s no rationality.”  Psychologists believe most arsonists suffer from mental and personality disorders.

Being a Rural Urban Interface—an RUI is a mixture of domestic dwellings, businesses and factories with the bush—the Shire of Mundaring and all who live within its boundaries is at an extreme risk from bushfires. But thank goodness, no lives have ever been lost due to the fires Bush has fought!

Now that we have bid summer a fond farewell, moved the barbeques indoors and swapped the fun in the sun for singing in the rain and kick-to-kick footy, rest assured Captain Mark Bush and his team at the Parkerville Volunteer Bushfire Brigade will continue to meet, train, upgrade and keep their desires to fight fire and protect life and land burning.