By Colin MacGillivray
A FIRE at Longwood and a neighbour’s request for help changed Hilldene man John Clarke’s life when he was only 16.
Mr Clarke’s neighbour was a lieutenant of what at the time was Seymour Rural Fire Brigade, and needed extra assistance to control a blaze at Longwood.
“He asked my parents whether my brother and I could help fight the fire. I was about 16 at the time,” Mr Clarke said.
“That’s how I got started [with the Country Fire Authority, CFA], and it just continued on until I decided that I was old enough to retire.”
Mr Clarke spent 56 years with the CFA after becoming a member in 1965, eventually climbing his way into the organisation’s upper ranks.
He was today recognised as part of the Governor-General’s Australia Day honours list, receiving an Australian Fire Service Medal for a career of dedication.
Mr Clarke said he was humbled to receive the medal.
“I feel it’s a great honour and a privilege to be considered and receive it,” he said.
“It’s not only an award for me, but it’s an award for all the CFA volunteers I’ve worked with over the years.”
One of Mr Clarke’s greatest challenges was helping to organise fire operations and recovery efforts in Marysville following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
He was responsible for deploying CFA personnel in support of the Victoria Police, and handpicked resilient brigade crews that he was confident could endure the adverse conditions they faced.
The welfare of CFA members was his highest priority, and he encouraged them to use the District 12 peer support group and arranged personal psychologist appointments for crew members who attended Marysville.
“Myself and another member managed all the fire crews that went to Marysville for the next month after Black Saturday,” Mr Clarke said.
“We selected them and sent them up there and supported them on their tour of duty for the month after Black Saturday.
“It was a difficult situation when we drove in there, to see the devastation, but I must admit the crews we sent up there did a wonderful job, not only on the firefighting side, but also supporting the community members in Marysville that were left behind.”
Mr Clarke said a culture of support within the CFA was the biggest reason he had remained for so long.
“It’s an organisation where we support each other. Even though I went up into upper-level management, I wanted to make sure the people on the ground doing the hard yards were getting the support they needed,” he said.
“It’s a great feeling of satisfaction that I was able to do that.
“The CFA is a great organisation and they do a wonderful job in extremely difficult circumstances a lot of the time. Volunteers go out there and put their life on the line.
“With the modern trucks and training, it’s probably made their job a lot safer than what it was when I started, and the main thing is that we all keep safe and come home to our loved ones.”