Gibson Bushfire Brigade volunteer reflects on years of service

Community spirit: Gibson Bushfire Brigade first lieutenant Cody Govans outside the brigade. Photo: Jake Dietsch.
Community spirit: Gibson Bushfire Brigade first lieutenant Cody Govans outside the brigade. Photo: Jake Dietsch.

Fires are raging across the nation, communities are devastated and lives have been lost.

As the disaster continues, Australian Community Media, of which this paper is a part, is giving a voice to those who are volunteering their time to battle blazes on the front-lines.

In Esperance, fires have at times cut off routes to Norseman and Kalgoorlie to the north and South Australia to the east.

The horror fire season recently saw a Watch and Act issued for Salmon Gums and has led to widespread damage to national parks in the shire, including in the remaining habitat of the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot.

The Express spoke with Gibson Bushfire Brigade first lieutenant Cody Govans.

Mr Govans has been a firefighting volunteer for the past nine years. He decided to join the brigade after moving to Gibson from Esperance.

He has kept going as a volunteer because he enjoys helping his community.

Throughout Mr Govan's time as a volunteer, there have been a couple of moments he describes as being "a bit too close for comfort".

"In the 2015 fires, our truck almost stalled out from the smoke because it couldn't get enough oxygen to the motor," he said.

"When we were trying to run away from the 2015 fires, it was the closest call and we weren't able to do anything. The smoke killed the motor and we could only do 50 to 60kms an hour.

"We were on Grigg Road at the time. We were pretty lucky compared to the other people who were on the same road."

While he describes the personal physical toll as "not too bad", Mr Govans admits a long battle against a bushfire can be mentally draining.

This is especially the case for a volunteer like Mr Govans who is in a brigade leadership position.

He is partly responsible for the safety of his team and has to think quickly on his feet in deciding what to do next.

The toll of fighting fires also extends to family members of volunteers.

Mr Govans, a father of three, said larger fires could be taxing on his children.

"They go, 'when's daddy coming home', because normally I'm gone before they get up and they're in bed before I get home," he said.

"It's a bit harder on the kids. The wife puts up with it to a degree, she gets a bit grumpy at night sometimes, but she knows it's for a good cause."

Mr Govans said the Esperance and Gibson communities always showed support through strong turnouts at community meetings and shire showed appreciation by holding events, such as movies and breakfasts, to say thank you to volunteers.

However, the volunteers do not receive government subsidised compensation for loss of work or tax relief.

For Mr Govans this is not a big issue, as his employers at CBH allow him to fight fires whenever he receives the call-out.

"It's alright for me because my work allows me to go to the fires without loss of pay or annual leave," he said.

"I get a call on my mobile saying there's a fire and I can drop what I'm doing and leave my work.

"I've been deployed to Balladonia and asked if I could go, and they say 'yep, no problems'.

"But especially for the guys that are volunteering from their own businesses, [tax relief or compensation] would be nice to see."

Mr Govans said as the first lieutenant of the brigade, he had seen conflict between work and firefighting commitments cause a strain for some volunteers.

"Especially because we've got quite a few self-employed people such as farmers," he said.

Mr Govans would also like to see more fit-for-purpose trucks for rural brigades and a second uniform for volunteers who go out on extensive deployments.

In October, the Shire of Esperance council voted to lobby DFES leadership and to advise them the shire's current fleet of firefighting trucks had inadequacies and "may increase the risk to volunteer firefighter safety".

On the plus side, Mr Govans has seen progress in back burning in the Esperance region.

"We've fought for along time for it and we're now we're starting to see more back burns," he said.