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Getting the truck out in Omeo Group

  • Omeo and Swifts Creek captains
  • Omeo 1st lieutenant Brandon Betts
  • Omeo leaders Graham and Brandon
  • Training with the domestic prop
  • Stephen and Sarah O'Brien, Swifts Creek

Locals describe Swifts Creek as “below the gap” at the foot of the Great Divide while Omeo 26 kilometres away is “above the gap” on the Great Divide.

“We call them other things on the footy ground,” said Omeo Captain Graham Symons, “but actually there’s a very tight community spirit and we’d drop everything to go to their aid. That’s what you do.”

The other thing they do in this part of the world is get the fire truck out during the week with no trouble. So, what’s their secret?

“It all comes down to local employment,” insisted Graham who runs an engineering workshop 150 metres from the fire station. His ‘captain’s pick’ is that his apprentices join the brigade. Carpenter and First Lieutenant Brandon Betts works only 100 metres from the fire station, while about 75 per cent of the membership is self-employed.

“We’re very fortunate to have some great young people,” continued Graham, “and often they’re the next generation in community-minded families. When Brandon joined we ended up with about five of his mates who’ve all found work in the district, so young people do a good job headhunting for us.

“You give them a purpose so they’re not just sitting in the back: give them leadership opportunities or encourage them to take the slip-on out. The brigade gives them a buzz and a sense of achievement.

“Brandon went to fires in DELWP territory last fire season and did good work with knapsacks and rakehoes. That all helps our relationships with DELWP and Parks [Victoria] in Swifts.”

Omeo has a population of about 250 and CFA is just part of the community conversation in the pub, at the petrol stations and on other community committees.

There are also a number of small communities within a 30-kilometre radius including Cobungra and Bundara, both Omeo satellite fire stations with ultralights. The Cobungra vehicle was donated by Mt Taylor brigade whose members spent a lot time assisting around Omeo after the 2003 fires.

“That donation has blown us away,” said Graham. “We hold them and Sarsfield brigades in very high esteem. To get out the door, you have to have trucks in the first place.”

Graham also gives full credit to his wife Ronda Manhire who, as group secretary, has not only been a fundraising dynamo for brigade vehicles but also recruited for all group brigade management teams.

Sarah O’Brien completed Minimum Skills three years ago when she was 16 and is one of two operational women at Swifts Creek. Her father Stephen is currently the captain.

“I love being in CFA,” she said. “I joined because I want to protect my community but it’s a really great network. Prospective employers really like active volunteers and it can help you integrate into an area if you’re new.

“The practical skills weren’t hard to pick up because I’ve grown up around the fire truck so it’s second nature. Being farmers, we watch the weather closely and wonder about our prospects for the day or the week.”

Sarah remembers her family’s sheep and beef farm being burnt out in 2003 although their house was saved when the southerly came through. In 2007, the family’s house again survived bushfire but all their fences were lost.

Sarah is currently a holiday member as she lives away from home while completing a double degree in Ballarat.

Still, she has no doubt about where her heart lies.

“You take pride in being from the country and I’m definitely staying rural.”

Last Updated: 08 September 2016