A few years after moving from South Africa to South Australia, Sunet Verwey and her husband came across an ad for the Country Fire Service at their local shopping centre. 

Key points:

  • Some CFS brigades in South East SA are experiencing shortages ahead of fire danger season
  • More women and migrants are joining brigades and filling gaps
  • Volunteering has helped new arrivals integrate into the community

Grateful for the support they had received from locals when they first settled in Glencoe, in the state’s south-east, the couple felt inspired to repay the favour.

“We started thinking we could give something back to the community to show our appreciation,” Ms Verwey said.

The couple joined the Glencoe Country Fire Service (CFS) brigade in December 2019, and moved to the Yahl brigade after relocating to Mount Gambier.

Sunet Verwey joined the service after migrating from South Africa.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

CFS Region 5 volunteer officer Damon Whitwell says Ms Verwey is just one example of how the idea of who can be a CFS volunteer is changing.

“There is the perception that it is that male-dominated environment, [but] things have changed a lot over the years,” he said.

“The more women we have on board, the more women are seeing that it can be done.

“And as the migrant community grows, we are seeing more of them come on board and join the service as well,” he said.

“It gives you that connection to the community and the opportunity to be involved in a really close-knit group of people.”

While the Yahl brigade has strong numbers, other local brigades are experiencing shortages.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

Second-generation fireys

Schoolteacher and CFS volunteer Denielle Maxwell started at the Victor Harbor brigade 12 years ago, and has since volunteered in Kadina on the Yorke Peninsula and in Mil-Lel, on the outskirts of Mount Gambier.

She followed in the footsteps of her father, who was with the CFS for 30 years.

“My entire childhood … the pager would go off and we’d be like, ‘what’s going on, what’s happening?,'” she said.

“I had a lot of experience with my brother and I being left at home while Mum was on shift work… and Dad’s gone off on a strike team down to KI [Kangaroo Island] or something crazy.”

Denielle has volunteered at various brigades for 12 years.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

She said getting involved in different brigades while moving around the state as a teacher has helped her settle in to new places.

“Moving to a new town, it’s nice to get to know a few people around the community,” she said.

“I just found out one of the other brigade members is almost my neighbour, so that kind of stuff is really nice to find out, that there are people around who I know.”

Family line

Another volunteer, Kerry Robson, followed her mother into the CFS when she was 12, and is coming up to 20 years of service with the Wandilo and Mil-Lel brigades.

She said despite warnings of a worse than average fire danger season, local brigades are preparing as normal.

“I’m getting sick of hearing it because … every time the news comes on it’s about that,” she said.

“If you prepare yourself then you shouldn’t have an issue. You shouldn’t be worried.”

Kerry Robson has been with the service for almost 20 years.(ABC South East SA: Josh Brine)

Fire season numbers 

Mr Whitwell said that while some regional brigades have boosted volunteer numbers of late, gaps always need to be filled as older volunteers retire or move away.

“At some of our smaller brigades we are starting to struggle with members,” he said.

“Some brigades have had some really good work done lately with recruiting leading up to the fire season, but we do have a couple of areas of concern still where we’d like to see a few more people jump on board and help out.”