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“You might get a phone call at 3am and off you go," says Jill Brett, who has been a proud Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer for 24 years. "Luckily, I have a very understanding husband who's also been with the RFS for 27 years - so he gets what I do and he totally supports me."

Now retired, 60-year-old Jill is a fire fighter and an air base officer for the Coal & Candle Rural Fire Brigade based on McCarrs Creek Road in Terrey Hills.

"Whether it's a fire or a hazard reduction, there's always an element of drama," she says. "On the Northern Beaches, we've got a lot of coastal heat that tends to really flare up and become pretty spectacular."

While Jill admits it can be a tough job, she's incredibly grateful for the opportunities the RFS has given her.

"It's certainly made me more confident in my abilities," she tells Peninsula Living. "As a woman, it can be quite confronting to try and do technical stuff or mechanical stuff because most of us are not brought up doing that. But I can do all that now -it's made me a lot more confident in that regard.

"I've had the chance to do things I never would've been able to do outside of the RFS. I've travelled interstate to some of the big fire campaigns. Probably one of the most memorable jobs I've done was to assist with packing up the floral tributes after the Lindt Café siege. That job in particular was very poignant and it was a real privilege."

Jill is part of a growing and committed group of volunteers who give up their time to keep the community safe and educate residents about the need for fire protection.

Joining Jill in the Northern Beaches district is Deputy group captain Rolf Krolke. An IT manager by day, Rolf has been with the RFS for 16 years and has tried his hand at just about everything before finding himself in a managerial role. He oversees the local volunteers, who come from all walks of life and work, in a variety of different fields when they're not volunteering.

"I'm the first point of contact if any volunteers have issues because, as you can imagine, it's a wonderfully diverse group of individuals from all different areas, and with diversity comes challenges," he says.

"Part of my role is coaching, mentoring, development, driving communication and so on. Then there's the operations component, which can be anything from being on duty on the weekend liaising with three brigades to running a large-scale hazard reduction with more than 300 fire fighters in the field."

Rolf says he has fought countless fires over the years but Victoria's Black Saturday in 2009 was a standout mainly because of the sheer devastation the bushfire left in its wake.

"I remember we'd been out all day. I was taking the team around the corner into Narbethong at night and it was absolutely annihilated," he says. "It gives you an appreciation that this is what can happen. A lot of what we deal with is large-scale bushfire - this particular fire had taken out a whole community."

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, extreme weather conditions due to climate change will continue to impact on rising temperatures and fires in NSW. Late last year, the CSIRO reported that surface temperatures had risen by one degree since 1910 and there had been a marked increase in heat waves and extreme fire weather days.

"Climate change is happening and it's having a tangible impact on Australia," says Karl Braganza, manager of the bureau's climate monitoring. "The fire season is now extending as warmer conditions are arriving sooner and lasting much longer."

He says that in the future, as rising greenhouse gas levels drive increases in surface temperatures, the frequency of hot days, including those bearing extreme fire weather, will rise further.

The report supports the reality that in the future, our RFS volunteers will be even more valuable and necessary than they are today.

Last year's state budget for 2016/17 delivered $1.3 billion for all emergency services with the RFS receiving $14.2 million.

Emergency Services Minister David Elliott also confirmed the Hercules C130 fire fighting aircraft named Thor had returned to Sydney in preparation for the fire season. Two large air tankers, including Thor, would continue to support fire fighters during the 2017 season.

"The aircraft is an important asset in our fire fighting arsenal," Mr Elliott says. "In addition, the RFS has access to more than 100 aircraft to help them fight both bush and fast moving grass fires."

The RFS reports that grass growth in our peninsula national parks has also risen during the winter season due to high rainfall and this is now having an impact on fire risk. The state government says the RFS has been supported this summer in their efforts by fire behaviour specialists, weather balloons and some additional crews.

The peninsula is a high-risk area where homes sit alongside bushland and national park. "Just be prepared," says Rolf.

"Have an evacuation plan for your home - no matter where you live. When we attend fires, the houses that are generally impacted from the fires are the ones two or three streets back that the fire trucks never get to. Whether you're right next to the bush or not, you always need to have a plan."

For Jill Brett, not only is it hard to imagine life without the RFS, she insists she's the one who benefits most from her volunteer work.

"We're not heroes," she maintains. "People think we're heroes and that's very flattering but the reality is we get more out of it than we give.

"There are jobs in the RFS for everybody. If you're not confident fighting fires, you could go into communications, you could go into catering, logistics - there are so many different roles in the RFS. It's the best thing I've ever done -other than marry my husband!"


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