AUSTRALIA – After more than a decade of active service, three of them as captain of her brigade in Farringdon, Ms Noakes stepped down in frustration with the RFS bureaucracy.
“You weren’t allowed to just go and put out a fire,” she said. “You always had to wait for approval. So, as you waited, the fire just escalated.”
Instead, Ms Noakes joined the “mosquito army”, a network of community-based firefighting teams, that went on to play a vital role in firefighting efforts during the 2019-2020 bushfires around Braidwood in the NSW Southern Tablelands.
With their own firefighting gear and radios, local knowledge and experience, the “mozzies” worked in close partnership with their local brigades when RFS resources were stretched beyond their limit across the state.
‘Plenty of cooperation’
For Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott, the “mozzie” phenomenon is not entirely new.
He has always maintained a strong relationship with Southern Tablelands farmers who left the brigade due to frustrations about new rules, training and accreditation requirements when the RFS was established in 1997.
And he knew he could rely on them when “shit hit the fan”.
Since the Black Summer bushfires, some members of the Mongarlowe “mozzies'” have signed up with his brigade and, despite some initial resistance, the RFS now recognises the crucial contribution of “mozzies” to the firefighting effort.
In September last year, the RFS established a working group focused on integrating “farm fire units” into firefighting operations to ensure better coordination of RFS crews and independent firefighters.
But the question remains — how to manage the risks of working with unregulated firefighting units.
‘Brigades are suffering’
Over the border in north-east Victoria, morale is low in the Walwa Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigade, and membership is dwindling.
“I think we still have members of our brigade who are suffering, who are still very raw in their mind,” David Hanna, who stepped down as captain of the brigade after the Black Summer fires, said.