When Ros Pope Hocking’s pager goes off, she heads into town to the Wanilla fire shed, where she’s in charge of getting her crew out onto a fireground on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

The 41-year-old mother-of-three is the Wanilla Country Fire Service captain, following in the footsteps of her father Ross.

Her mum Heather and husband Andrew Hocking are also members, so for a few years, if there was a fire in the Wanilla area, the “Popemobile” — also known as the local CFS truck — would turn up.

“Dad’s been in it for nearly 40 years and then I joined him,” Ros said.

“Then, a couple of years later, Mum joined up after the [Wangary] fire just so Mum had an understanding of what Dad was going through.”

Ross, Ros and Heather Pope are the heart of the Wanilla CFS unit.(Supplied: Pope family)

The family now makes sure they’re not all on the fireground together in case something catastrophic happens.

As captain, Ros will head out if it looks like a bad blaze and Andrew will stay home with their children.

Their district was burnt in the Black Tuesday Wangary bushfire, which killed nine people in 2005.

Devastating past

The Pope family farm was in the path of the fire, with stock and fencing damaged, but luckily, bare ground around the three houses on their properties saved them.

The fire burnt 93 houses over an area of about 78,000 hectares on lower Eyre Peninsula from Wangary to North Shields.

Ros had joined the CFS a couple of years before the Wangary fire as a way of giving back by protecting the community and supporting local farmers.

But she wasn’t there when the fire ripped through the community on January 12, 2005.

Ros Hocking has stress-related alopecia and has come to terms with losing her hair.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

She was working in Alice Springs and, having joined their firefighting unit, was at a training night when she received messages on her phone from her mum about the fire.

“I just wanted to get home and help out,” Ros said.

She didn’t know that two children she used to babysit had died in the fire with their grandmother, as well as two other children and four adults across Lower Eyre Peninsula.

“It was almost a month after that I came home, and just flying in, coming in to land and looking at black landscape was pretty eye-opening,” Ros said.

It’s been 18 years since the fire and while farms have restocked and homes have been rebuilt, fire is still a threat each summer.

Ros and Andrew have educated their three children on how to deal with fires.

Ros Hocking sits tall as the Wanilla CFS brigade captain.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The older two, aged 13 and 12,  know how to start water pumps.

“We’ve got a little fire cupboard. They pack their own bags with spare clothes, with their teddy, stuff that they think is important,” Ros said.

“Every year before the bushfire season, we will go through those bags … obviously update clothes because they may have grown and won’t fit into their knickers or jocks, or whatever.

“So that is part of their little bit of responsibility.”

Numbers dwindling

The number of Wanilla CFS members have greatly reduced because farms have been sold and the new owners don’t necessarily live in the area.

“Wanilla [population 95 in 2021 Census], in particular, has become a real small community,” Ros said.

“[CFS] members are slowly going because some of those members have moved out and there’s no one coming in to replace them.

“At one stage, we were known as the Popemobile because there was my mum, my dad, and myself and we were probably for a few years were the only three for the truck rocking up,” Ros said.

“Now and then we might have another one or two on the truck, but normally the Popemobile would roll out.”

They currently have seven members but not all are available at once for the five to 10 call-outs a year for fire and vehicle accidents.

Ros Hocking is a wool classer who worked in shearing sheds.(Supplied: CFS)

Ros said the community supported the family with their CFS duties.

“I do have support from a few members in the community that will help out looking after the kids and stuff if we can’t get to pick them up from the school bus or from school,” she said.

In the five years as captain of her brigade, there have been some hairy moments.

“If I think it’s too dangerous, I’ll get my crew out because we need to come home to our families as well,” he said.

Ros is used to working in a male-dominated industry having spent years in shearing sheds as a wool classer and roustabout.

More women fighting fires

The Country Fire Service has 25 female brigade captains and 21 per cent of its 10,000 firefighters are women.

A spokesperson for the CFS said there were many more women in other leadership roles and the future of women in the service looked bright, with females making up 32 per cent of its 813 youth cadets aged between 11 and 18.

Ros Hocking’s family property has sheep and cattle as well as a small herd of goats, ducks and chooks.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ros has cut back on that work to be at home more and is now concentrating on the family’s four properties, totalling 3,500 hectares, with sheep, cows, goats, ducks and chooks to keep her busy.