AFSM recipient Michael Rowe with participants at the 2021 Cape Clear Women’s Burn Day
Many people across CFA and the wider emergency services have benefited from Michael Rowe’s vision, diligence and commitment to community safety and inclusion across his 42-year volunteer career.
The Cape Clear Fire Brigade captain has been awarded an Australian Fire Service Medal in the 2023 Australia Day Honours for his exemplary contribution to the emergency services and communities of Victoria.
In receiving the AFSM Michael said: “I’m extremely humbled and quite emotional. I have been in shock since I found out.
“I have to give full credit to the people around me as they have inspired me to always push for greater. Having good people around you makes a huge difference,” he added.
Michael’s career as a CFA volunteer started in 1981 when as a teenager he joined his father at Clunes Fire Brigade. He transferred to Cape Clear Rural Fire Brigade in 1989, going on to hold several lieutenant positions before being elected captain in 2010, a position he holds to this day.
Michael’s distinguished service is not just in fighting fires. His passion, advocacy and knowledge – for preventative burning in particular – inspires many, as does his steadfastness for seeing CFA’s women volunteer cohort grow and succeed.
By using and sharing his knowledge of controlled burning Michael has created a change in mindsets within brigades and across CFA.
Cape Clear Fire Brigade has a history of burning the roadsides in its area for community fire prevention and protection. With one road stretching from one side of the district to the other, this used to be a time-consuming and labour-intensive job.
However, Michael developed a system of burning both sides of the road simultaneously, resulting in a quicker burn that was not only safer for crews and traffic, but better for the environment and communities with less smoke put into the atmosphere. Michael’s system was refined with each burn, and soon surrounding brigades joined in.
On the back of this success, Michael released a book in 2015 called The Art of Roadside Burning. This roadside burning manual includes strategies and techniques to support brigades across the state to undertake controlled roadside burning safely and productively. Through the book Michael shared his knowledge and experience from his many years of preventative burning with the goal to reengage and train CFA members in roadside burning – a once-widespread practice that had decreased or disappeared in many parts of the country.
Michael is a strong supporter and advocate for gender equality in CFA and was one of the first captains to initiate women-only training camps. In 2018 Michael introduced women-only burn days to encourage more women to get involved in and experienced in roadside burning. The burn days also provided a space for women to learn, share and develop their firefighting skills in a friendly, supportive environment.
This unique event has drawn widespread acclaim, with ongoing benefits to the hundreds of participants. Since its inception, the Cape Clear Women’s Burn Day has grown from a one-day event to a full weekend program of skills maintenance and roadside burning. Held twice a year, hundreds of women from across the state attend each event, eager to increase their expertise, knowledge and confidence in a fun and safe environment.
There are many highlights across his volunteer career, however Michael speaks with pride when reflecting on the success of the burn days.
Visionary at the time, the women-only burn days have now been adopted statewide using the model developed by Michael and Cape Clear brigade. The initiative continues to have a profound impact on the engagement and recruitment of women into CFA, highlighting the importance of the program for brigade sustainability.
“It has been immensely rewarding both personally and professionally to see the success of the women’s burn days,” Michael said.
“You can see the benefits almost instantly, with the confidence of participants growing before your eyes. Many will go from being unsure and hesitant to leading activity across the course of the day, and sometimes it’s not until you point it out to them that they realise just how much they have achieved.”
One of the key benefits, Michael says, is the way participants feel empowered to take what they have learned back to their home brigade and share their new knowledge with others.
“Through participating in the burn days CFA’s women members leave with increased confidence in their skills as well as a network of people they can contact for support regardless of which brigade they are from,” he said.
“The knowledge they gain is paid forward – that is extremely powerful.”
Michael is also a strong supporter of the District 15 Women’s Reference Group and has been nominated by the group as one of only two Champions of Change.
A passionate and inspiring leader who garners the best from his people, Michael is committed to protecting his crews and community. Whether on the fireground or at a roadside burn, the safety and wellbeing of his members is front of mind.
During the 2019-20 fires in NSW, understanding that crews were going to face a challenging firefight, Michael encouraged members to take the time the night prior to deployment to speak to their families and loved ones. He reportedly said: “…talk to your loved ones because tomorrow is going to be tough and you won’t have time to think about anything else, but we will all get out alive”. And they did.
Michael’s nominator writes: “Great leadership not only saves lives; it absolutely inspires people to go one step further than their best.”