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The real Kaptain Koala calls time
Keith Harms was a nurse at north-east Victoria’s haunted Mayday Hills lunatic asylum, before joining Beechworth Rural Fire Brigade in 1971.
By Tony Cattermole
In 1987 he was elected to the position of captain and soon after would adopt the nick name Kaptain Koala.
“Now CFA should pay me, because they use Captain Koala as the official mascot,“ Keith said.
Keith has served Beechworth brigade for more than 40 years and was awarded the National Emergency Medal in 2015.
He said a fire at Mount Buffalo was the first he attended as a member of the brigade.
Fire has threatened the north-east community several times over the years, with the Black Saturday fires in 2009 the most recent.
He said a fire in 2003 that started in the Buckland Gap and moved towards Stanley and Beechworth was not a good experience.
“It was the most frightening fire I have ever seen, but it’s a great honour to be there and protect the local community,” he said.
Keith believes being a good talker and being able to give orders has been the secret to his success as captain over the past 30 years.
“I’ve got the gift of the gab. When I first became captain I was a bit green but I picked up lot of skills.
“I never gave an order that I wasn’t prepared to do myself, everyone had a voice and if anyone had a problem my door was always open.”
In 1994, local strike teams were sent to help battle devastating bushfires in New South Wales that were threatening lives and property in the Hunter Valley.
Keith recalls a frightening burnover that was too close for comfort.
“I had a fire lighter and was back burning and the fire moved quickly and I had to protect myself, so I found a big log and cleaned out under it and then back burned the area before taking shelter.
I was right under it, and when the fire went over I was actually pulled out a little bit. I was holding my breath. The fire actually sucks the air out like a vacuum.
“It happened so quickly, you just sit and think to yourself, yeah that was lucky.
“You have to gear yourself up and I was breathing until the last few moments and I was lucky the fire went over very quickly.”
Keith said one of the biggest fires outside the Beechworth area was the 2001 fires at Hilltop in NSW.
“We actually pumped a swimming pool and a 3000-litre tank down before we actually got the fire out. At the peak of the fire the water was evaporating before it hit the fire,” he said.
Keith credits the support of his wife Margaret, who is also a very active member of the brigade, with his ability to perform the role of captain for such a long time.
“Nearly all our married life we’ve actually been in the brigade and she’s been a great support to me. She actually helps me so much and if I do have any problems she’s the one that helps me work it all out.
“If you haven’t got the support of your partner you’re no good at all.”
First Lieutenant Bruce Forrest will step into the role of captain over coming months, while Keith will take on the position of first Lieutenant.