News & Media

Groups: a long and winding road

By: Christopher Simmins

Category: Partnerships, People

  9.14 PM 28 November, 2016

Location: District 2 News, District 15 News, General

Views: 1469

Christopher Simmins from Newstead Fire Brigade looks at the history of CFA's Group system.

This is an overview of the development and history of Victorian Rural Fire Brigade and Group system, with occasional references to Newstead Fire Brigade.

The Fire Brigades Act of 1890 led to the creation of the Country Fire Brigades Board (CFBB). The CFFB had extensive powers and responsibilities over fire brigades based further than 10 miles from Melbourne.

Prior to the ‘Black Friday’ fires of January 1939, firefighting was mainly an individual affair. Brigades or people, just flocked to a fire when it started and  pitched in ,or if it did not immediately threaten their property ,they stayed away (Murray, White  State Of Fire, CFA 1995.  p99).

It was during the disastrous bush fires that had occurred in the 1920’s that the Victorian State Government recognised that the various  Volunteer Fire Brigades that existed around the state, needed far better coordination of manpower and resources. This was especially in relation to large bush fires (Murray, White State Of Fire ,CFA 1995. p93 ).

Mr C.H. Campbell , a representative of the Melbourne Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade (created in 1927), which was formed to  provide protection from bush fire, within a radius of 60 miles from the Melbourne) offered the following argument  in support of the bush fire brigades. It was during their AGM of 26 April 1936 : “ that the bush fire brigades organisation is a super voluntary movement ,in that members not only give their services freely, but in addition purchased their own equipment .” The MVBFB had hoped to build up force of 2000 volunteers which were to be divided into Groups of 50. Each group would comprise 10 units of 5 men. Forest Commission Officers along with members of Bush Brigades would conduct training prior to the fire season (Murray ,White .State Of Fire, CFA p88).

Group structure is a highly evolved military system principally reliant on resources , communication and transport .It is designed to make the best use of required manpower etc , at a particular time. Recognising the value of such a system, Casterton Brigade established a loose Group with its surrounding brigades as early as 1927. Rural brigades around Stawell had also operated a Group system in 1934 which was noted at the time in the ‘Stawell News,’ It commented, “The bush fire brigades will now operate under a new system, which was tried successfully last season , of grouping the brigades in the district”  (Stawell News 4/4/1934).

The need to organise brigades for greater efficiency at fires, led to a meeting at the Melbourne Town hall on 18-19 September 1928. It  gathered together various parties such as Minister of Forests Mr  W.J. Beckett and  the CFBB Chief Officer Mr W.M. Chellow  along with representatives from  50 Bush Fire Brigades. Beckett had in mind an organisation or association of Bush Fire Brigades  which would work in conjunction with the CFBB ,and which had the power to compel owners to clean up blocks, enter private property and to use water from dams and to fight fires without being liable to prosecution for damages.

The outcome of the 2 day conference saw the formation of the Bush Fire Brigades Association (BFBA).  A  further  meeting on the 7th of November saw the State of Victoria being divided up into 7 Fire Control Districts each with its own administering council .

The Districts were called : Western, North Western, Eastern, Central, Eastern, Northern , Melbourne Bush fire Brigade, along with an extra district comprising various government departments  such as CFBB , Police, Railways , Land Departments , & Forests ( Murray ,White.  State Of fire ,CFA p89).

By 1939 The Victorian Bushfire Brigades Association had under its administration 399 bush brigades.

A formal reference to organised Fire Brigade Groups was noted in the Northern District Council (NDC) of the VBFBA  minutes, of April 18th 1940. The  motion recorded…’that all Bush Fire Brigades throughout Victoria be formed into Groups of about 10 Brigades. That the boundaries of these Groups be defined by trafficable roads & due consideration be given when forming them, to the relation between brigades in respect of fire hazard’. It was also noted that ‘each Brigade notify other Brigades in their Group the names of officers   authorised, to call for assistance in times of emergency’.

The Second World War commenced early in September 1939 .It had progressed steadily   from Europe and North Africa, eventually shifting to the Pacific region. The Japanese invasion and subsequent ‘Fall of Singapore’ on Feb 15 1942, quickly followed. Four days later 188 Japanese bombers attacked Darwin Harbour  killing 238 with 556 causalities. The  Invasion of the Australian mainland was now  at the forefront of any Government thinking and policies .It quickly identified  that industrial populated and rural regions within Australia were now prime targets of Japanese attack. The Federal Government then quickly established,  what was known as the ‘ G Committee’. The ‘ G Committee’ was created under the Rural Fires Prevention Order of January 1942,  “to prevent and minimise the spread of fire caused by enemy action in rural Victoria”.

It was during the early anxious months of 1942 that many public meetings were held across Victoria. Numerous members of the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) were to become instrumental  in the formation of many of these new Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades. It is also interesting to note that many of these fire brigades had been created in towns or locations, where a fire brigade had never previously existed before (Newstead  VBFB  minutes of 6th May 1942 p5).

It’s also interesting to note that the VBFBA had possibly been approached by the,’ G Committee’ to form up Groups.  Although it was never been stated in any know records ,I can safely deduce that the formation  of the ‘G’ Committee  was most likely an official  ‘jargon term’, but was meant to mean  ‘Group’. (authors  opinion , C J Simmins 1999 )

It was under the auspices of the Victorian State Forests department and Bush Fire Act of 1933 that The Newstead and District Bush Fire Brigade became registered on the 24th August 1942.It was also noted on the foot note of the  Newstead Certificate of Registration(No 452)  that the certificate must be returned to the Bush Fire Brigades Committee if the brigade is amalgamated with any other brigade.

Duplication and rivalry between the CFBB and the VBFBA (which by 1943, had 600 brigades  and approx.  59,000  volunteers), meant competition for supplies during wartime , was intense. (Chief Officer Report 25th August. 1943)

Under the Federal Government ration scheme of the time, firefighting resources were basic and equipment scarce. Brigades once formed had to rely on local community for support .Many brigades had no stations, trucks etc. Beaters and knapsacks were the tools of the trade and often housed at a convenient central location (shire depot or local service station). Water was supplied in Furfy tanks, not for firefighting, but for drinking .Dry firefighting or ‘back burning  was the principal bushfire firefighting technique. (interview 1987, David Leathbridge founding member Newstead BFB 1942).


The  fledgling Newstead Bush Fire Brigade was given the loan of the Newstead Butter Co- operative truck, along with use of the Victorian Gold Dredging  Company  truck for the transport of volunteers and equipment to fires .’ The butter factory would sound its steam whistle to raise the alarm for the town and its brigade in case of fire’ . (Newstead  Bush Fire Brigades  minutes  of Nov 18th 1942 p14).

During the war years , Fire Brigade Groups were inclined to be very  large . Some groups contained  as  many as 10 or 15 Brigades. Newstead Brigade was part of the ‘Loddon Valley Group’  . It was made up brigades from within a close geographic area of the Newstead Shire District . Brigades that made up the Loddon Valley Group were , Franklinford , Newstead,  Campbell’s Creek ,Talbot ,Mt Cameron  Joyce’s Creek &  Moolort Bush Fire Brigades.  It’s early  members were mainly share farmers  who had family relatives  within the various outer brigades. “Sometimes  religion , politics , family differences  along with complex personal attitudes and strong personalities got in the way of the efficient running of some of these some brigades and groups ”.  (interview Dave Leathbridge 1987, founding member of Newstead and District BFB 1942).

With the growth of brigades, the Management and creation of new Groups was proving to be a problem.  At an Executive meeting of the Northern District Council on the 21 June 1943 held at the Bendigo Town Hall, it was motioned, that the Secretary of the Northern District Council  be instructed to send circular letters to all Brigades and Groups in the district stating ,’That the formation of a Group must first  be approved by this council . That approval would not be given to Groups , when a brigade was not affiliated with the VBFBA, and that the allotment of equipment would not be recommended into Groups ,not approved by this council , and that the constitution as suggested  by the Association, be followed as closely as possible. ’It also stated ‘that the secretary incorporate in the circular letter the recommendation to form Groups, not only for the purpose of obtaining equipment , but primarily  for mutual assistance ,cooperation and efficient working between brigades’. (secretary, Northern District Council , Minutes of 21 June 1943)

Charles Reece an early member (late 1940’s) of the Newstead BFB and later Captain of the brigade completion team commented, “many fire brigades, both rural and urban were known to be somewhat territorial when it came to brigade and group  boundaries, and the sharing of  resources and in general co-operations at fires . It was known that some brigades would simply pack up their equipment and return home if a fire progressed outside their area, he said.”(interview 1995).

Major fires had ravaged  Victoria  during the war years.  The ’G Committee” and the formation of the VBFBA led to a lessening of the parochial attitudes that had existed in many townships . Bush Brigades and Groups had now become formal bodies and were expected to be available to the community . With the assistance from  the Federal Governments ‘Lend Lease’ arraignment, many brigades were to eventually take  possession of a fire truck (often ex military) and fit it out to suit their own requirements. However brigades and communities still needed to fund raise to build their own fire stations and purchase their own minor or major equipment.                

At fires, better coordination and administration between the CFBB and the VBFBA was still needed. With political and internal  differences softening , logical  reasoning followed  between the two organisations, meant amalgamation was nearing. Throughout  the later months of 1944 the CFBB Chief Officer, Mr  McPherson toured the state talking to combined groups of the CFBB & VBFBA members, ‘ for the need to amalgamate with the intention to form one organisation’. It’s interesting to note , at the AGM of the Northern District Council dated 17th April 1944 ,that delegates were instructed to support resolutions …  ‘opposing any amalgamation ,’ with the CFBB.

 On the 8th of September 1944   the Forests Commission convened a meeting in Melbourne involving the Army, Police, Air Force, municipal associations, CFBB, Railway Commission , VBFBA. The meeting pledged the closest cooperation and support to the Government in the prevention of rural fires ( Murray, White. State Of Fire ,CFA p120).

At a Committee meeting of the Newstead Bush Fire Brigade held at the Newstead Mechanics Hall on 20th December 1944 it was recorded that Mr Jack Cameron from the Newstead brigade be elected as delegate to the Newstead Shire  ‘G Committee’. At the same meeting the brigade voted to support action of delegate at the Northern District Bendigo conference  in speaking , ‘ that this brigade ‘Newstead’,   ‘disapproved of Country Fire Authority  legislation, and will be voting against any suggestions, by  threat of de-registration of brigades as a means of re-draw’. (minutes Newstead BFB 20th December 1944 p34)

 Legislation was drafted ,and the Act created to establish a single rural firefighting  organisation in Victoria.  The Country Fire Authority (CFA) passed through the Victorian Parliament in 2 stages on the 22 November and 19 December  1944 . Also on the same day  a Chairman was appointed , Mr A.M. King. along with 12 members of the Board. This enabled  the CFA to commence duties 1st January 1945. The first  meeting of the CFA Board took place at the old CFBB HQ at 60 Market  St Melbourne. The board divided Victoria into 24 Fire Control Regions as well as appointing Regional Officers . (Loddon Valley Group  was part of the CFA Region 15 which was  based in Ballarat).

Rural brigades throughout Victoria were now directed under a new system of management from a Melbourne based manager ,and hostility towards the CFA was quickly mounting. One main reason for hostility was that the CFA Act could compulsory acquire the property of brigades. Another reason for increased tension was that the CFA didn’t recognise Groups or the group structure .The new CFA Act didn’t win any favours  from the  municipal shires either which said Shires  must have a ‘Proper Officer’ employed for fire prevention .The writing of CFA Act, made no provision for  Groups. However Groups  and Group structure appealed in particular to volunteers returning from the war. Samuel   Burston, a  Major with overseas experience in tank units during World War II commented later: ’ they were able to apply their wartime expertise to the improvement of firefighting  tactics and administration’. Many Fire Brigade Groups had their own headquarters and 2 way radios(Murray, White. State Of Fire  CFA p133).

The finial written surrender of Japan occurred  on 12 Sept 1945. This  bought an end to the Second World War. British Commonwealth Occupational Forces BCOF along with American forces remain in Japan to oversee rebuilding and provide administration.

 The 8th September 1951 saw the Japanese Peace Treaty sighed in San Francisco, this was ratified by Australia on 10th April 1952 (official end to WW2). Britcom  base at Kure, Japan finally closes July 1957.

The CFA had appointed 17 Regional Officers across the state. In 1946 one of the officers Alex Larkin spent most of his time touring throughout Gippsland organising brigades and setting up Groups.  He recalled’ The more I had to with the existing Group setup , the more I despised it’. The system was based on local municipal boundaries. The BFBA had directed funds through municipalities .This had led according to Larkins, many Shire Secretaries being appointed as Secretaries of Bush Fire Brigades (Murray, White. State of Fire ,CFA p142).

By 1959 the CFA attitude towards Groups had completely reversed.  It stated ‘Grouping of brigades has proved beneficial , and will be encouraged… Grouping does not necessarily follow municipal boundaries , but depends upon community of interest’. (CFA Service Manual revised 1959, p7)

Historically,  Victorian  Bush Fire Brigades had formed  Groups  not only for a regional identity,  but also as a power base for the acquisition and distribution of resources for the brigades within their Group.  Many groups names were often linked within  their municipal district. Other groups would identify  and adopt a notable local geographic  feature for their group name . Over time many  Groups  had become  protective of their family  group names  . A potential problem  for many  CFA brigades and groups  is that when there is a realignment to municipal boundaries or to some state government department , a group  may loose or acquire family brigades . The original Loddon Valley Group had taken in brigades from Talbot, Mount Cameron ,Franklinford, Moolort ,Newstead ,Campbell’s Creek ,Campbelltown. These brigades came from  different shires ( Tullaroop , Maldon & Newstead ). With the final construction of the Cairn Curran Reservoir  being completed in 1956, a large water boundary had now been created on the East West & Northern sides of the Loddon River.

By 1962  Brigades that had made up the original Loddon Valley Group  were now pushing  for the formation of a new Group ,that would better reflect  their brigades immediate operational areas .  A meeting was convened at  Guildford to include brigades from , Franklinford, Campbell’s Creek, Moolort, Maldon, Walmer , Werona , Campbelltown, Carisbrook, Newstead Fryerstown and Baringhup West. (Newstead BFB committee , minutes 16th April 1962 p94 ).

Out of  that meeting a new group was created which was now called ‘Guildford -Newstead Group’. The new Group comprised Newstead ,Guildford, Campbell’s Creek, Moolort and Franklinford brigades. Moolort was in the Shire of Tullaroop but geographically close to Newstead .Surprisingly there is no mention of Fryerstown in the minutes ( Newstead AGM, BFB minutes 3rd October 1962, p96).

During 1964 ,CFA had proposed changes to fire control boundaries and also proposed that the Shire of Newstead &  Tullaroop  Groups, along with other local Shires shift from Region 15 Fire District Ballarat, to Region 21 Fire District  Bendigo. (Newstead AGM,BFB minutes 2nd November 1964,p107).

Such was the intensity of  feeling regarding the  proposed shift to another  Region, a deputation was organised by the Newstead Shire Council for a combined meeting with the CFA Chief Secretary on March 15th 1965  ( Newstead BFB committee minutes 1st march 1965,p113) .

The combined deputation was successful ….

Throughout  the following 35 years the State of Victoria  saw numerous political and sociological changes. This had also bought about  changes to local Government & Municipal boundaries . Newstead Shire Group,  eventually lost Moolort brigade to Tullaroop Group  and Franklinford brigade was absorbed into the Glenlyon Group etc.

It wasn’t until  the catastrophic Black Saturday Fires of Febuary 2009 along with community expectations that it forced the Victorian State Government and its fire agencies  into a major rethink of the fire management process. Dramatic  policy changes with regard to building construction  and land use was also introduced. The CFA went back to calling Regions ,Districts. The Bureau Of Meteorology along with other departments had also redesigned the State of Victoria from five Total Fire Ban Districts to Nine. This change occurred on 10-10-2010 and  greatly simplified  Municipal boundaries with regard to Fire Ban Districts throughout the state .

 The Newstead Group ( CFA brigade number 15644) was to remain  with Region 15, until 30th June 2010 when it officially  transferred to Region 2  (taking up CFA brigade number 2210 ). Unfortunatly, my proposal for using the original group name 'Upper Loddon Valley' was over looked for the  new name 'Strathloddon'. 

Last Updated: 23 March 2017