Meet RFS volunteer Stuart Skene

23 October 2013

Stuart Skene has volunteered for the RFS for four years.
Stuart Skene has volunteered for the RFS for four years.

Members of the University community volunteer with the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and are helping to fight the bushfires that continue to threaten parts of New South Wales.

Stuart Skene, an administrative officer in the Faculty of Veterinary Science and a part-time student majoring in archaeology, has been helping fight the bushfire in the Springwood area. He answered some of our questions about what it's like in the Blue Mountains at the moment.

How long have you been a volunteer?

I grew up in Blaxland and signed on with the RFS when I moved back there around four years ago. All RFS fire fighters have to do a short course to be qualified to step on the fire ground and I completed my training a short time after signing on. I'm also trained in first aid, which carries over to my work at the University where I am the friendly first aid officer in JD Stewart!

Why did you become a volunteer and what are your responsibilities?

Blaxland and the mountains as a whole are full of very tight knit communities. I wanted to help the community and do my part to protect it. I think that's why we all become volunteers.

Our responsibilities as an organisation are the same from the individual to the very top. The highest priority when there's a fire is the preservation of life, followed by property.

In non-fire season we carry out hazard reductions, and assist with storm damage work. On the lighter side, we run fundraising events and help with community events such as water stalls at local marathons. We also maintain our vehicles and have regular training sessions.

Stuart works in the Faculty of Veterinary Science and is a part-time archaeology student,
Stuart works in the Faculty of Veterinary Science and is a part-time archaeology student,

What's it like in the Blue Mountains helping to fight these fires?

On Thursday and Friday last week I left early in the afternoon to be at home with my family - my very pregnant wife and two kids - when it became apparent that this was a very dangerous fire. My local area is a couple of suburbs away from the main fire in Springwood but we are all at risk of ember attack if the wind gets behind it.

Last Saturday was my first real shift on a fire, as we hadn't had to deal with anything like this since I first volunteered. Everyone put in 110 percent and didn't rest until the day was over.

I had never seen anything like it in my life. The flames on some of the fronts are huge - three to four storeys of fire well above tree lines - and so noisy. We had choppers close over head at one point but you couldn't hear them because of the noise generated by the fire. We could only catch glimpses of them circling above us through thick black smoke. There are moments where it's a bit frightening but when you have your head down doing the job you have to be pretty relaxed and remain focused on the task at hand.

We know that people have lost everything but morale is still high. Everyone who hasn't lost a house is giving something, whether it's volunteering time, making food and snack packs for the crews, or providing old clothes for families who have lost houses.

I think the hardest part is every day we hear that another day or two ahead is going to be bad so we have bags packed permanently ready to go at a moment's notice. At our house, my wife and I have the phones on while we sleep in case we a get a call to leave or need to protect our house if an ember attack occurs. I think everyone in the mountains is in the same situation but we are plodding along and we keep smiling for the most part.

How can people help?

Through the RFS donations page. This money goes directly to assisting the brigade with community activities.