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All along the watchtower
Spend an hour with North Warrandyte’s Sharon Sproule-Carroll and you’ll see why her three sons – new CFA recruits Kieran (23), Riley (21) and Tyson (18) – are so well prepared for brigade life.
The three brothers have signed up at North Warrandyte Fire Brigade and just passed their Minimum Skills. They’ll join dad Damien on the fireground when their pagers go off for that first time.
For Sharon, preparing your family to live with and fight bushfire is just what you do when you live in North Warrandyte. Sharon moved from Eltham to North Warrandyte to build a home on a bush block with Damien in 1998. North Warrandyte was a 15-minute drive from her old home but a world away in bushfire risk.
“I had no idea about bushfire until we moved here. I saw straight away that if we wanted to be here, we needed to feel comfortable. And to feel comfortable, I needed to know more about bushfire. And the brigade was the best place to get that information,” recalls Sharon.
But Sharon didn’t stop there. “We joined Community Fire Guard because I was concerned about my kids. I wanted them to know my neighbours. If anything happened, I could call someone and say “do you have my kids?”
“We were always very active because I was terrified. No one could be left home alone. Everyone needed to know how to use the pump. We did fire drills.”
Today, Sharon leads the local Community Fire Guard Group and shares her local know-how with newcomers and veteran residents alike.
* * *
The view from North Warrandyte’s station speaks to Sharon’s fears.
There’s a steep drop out the back of the station, down an escarpment of thick bush and into a tangle of gullies cut by the Yarra. Homes cling to cliff faces or nestle in the folds of the hills, the smoke of a few hundred wood stoves a sign that summer 2016 is in no hurry to arrive.
But the scene will soon change. Soon the spring grass on the flood plain will be tinder dry and the bush slopes above ready to burn. North Warrandyte will again be a community on edge: 1,350 residents – half of them hidden in dense bush – with only two roads out.
It’s against this backdrop that North Warrandyte Captain Michael Keating runs November brigade training.
The brothers’ arrival en masse was not something Captain Michael Keating took for granted, despite Damien’s strong involvement with the brigade. “Actually, they’ve been a bit of a surprise package. They weren’t kids who really hung around the fire station with their dad. I know that Damien had been trying to get them motivated… as you do with teenagers. And he finally got them all motivated.”
Dad Damien nods his head. “I thought they’d join once the time was right. However, once they did, I expected that one would drop out. I was very happy to see them come through together.”
“They’ve got qualities that mark them out as above the average, “says Michael. “It showed in the way they went through recruit training. They asked a lot of questions and they didn’t ask silly questions.”
So what did it take to get young men with new-found independence, jobs, some money in their pockets and ‘those’ Saturday nights to submit to the CFA training and turnout regime?
As with most things Sproule-Carroll, the answer is a blend of pragmatism and passion.
Kieran: “I’d just started an apprenticeship. Tyson had just started an apprenticeship. We had the time as I was previously working nights so I couldn’t do the training.”
And Tyson: “I’m at the stage of life where I’m joining everything. I’m trying to learn as much as possible.”
Riley is not at home to answer, so Sharon takes up his cause. “Riley decided because you two had decided. He works nights so has to take time off. It’s been really hard on him. And getting up on Sunday mornings – that’s been hard on him too. But I’ve really impressed with him.”
Completing Minimum Skills was a much a time as a learning challenge, made easier by the support of siblings. There was plenty of last minute revision and half eaten dinners on the 30-minute drive to training in Lilydale, recounts Kieran.
“We’d work together on assignments. If one of us didn’t have time, the other would help them. On the drive over we’d quiz each other.”
Invariably there was the odd hiccup. Like the time Damien picked up one of the boys from a party on the way to Sunday training, ordered the unslept lad to spend an hour or so in the cab and “told him in no uncertain terms not to do it again.” As Damien puts it, “that was a good learning curve.”
* * *
Tyson Sproule-Carroll looks at the ridge line beyond the lounge, his brother Kieran looking on from the kitchen. It’s the first hot night of the season – low 30s and shorts weather. “Two days like this and it will really dry out,” Tyson reckons.
Damien and Sharon nod. Old heads on young shoulders?
“No one knows everything,” says Damien to his sons. “If you don’t know, ask questions. Ask questions of the people who have been around for a while. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone does.”
And what about Sharon – wife, mother and pump drill sergeant – who knows that the four men in her home will soon drive into the Warrandyte bush when the pager goes off? It’s a simple message. “Your safety comes first. And your crew’s safety. Look out for each other. Come home safe.”