CFA captain Danny Cook remembers devastating fires

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Volunteering is a rite of passage in a small community, says 30-year-RACV member Danny Cook.

59 - Days the 2003 bushfires raged in northern Victoria
30 - Years Danny has been an RACV member

Country Fire Authority captain Danny Cook can’t remember what compelled him to join the CFA three decades ago, aged just 18.

When you’re from a small town such as Benambra – high in the hills more than 400km north east of Melbourne – volunteering is a rite of passage.

“You realise you’re in a vulnerable area with not much backup if there’s a fire,” he said. “Being part of the CFA is something many people want to do.”

Danny, who is a 30-year RACV member, became captain of Benambra’s CFA in 1999. Bushfire season was always a time to be on high alert. But until one summer, things were largely under control in the Benambra area. “The biggest fires I’d dealt with lasted three or four days, and most were contained within the day.”

The 2003 alpine bushfires started with a series of lightning strikes. Eight of those fires then joined to form the largest blaze in Victoria since 1939 (since surpassed by Black Saturday). “Nothing could prepare us for what happened.”

The fires (known as the Complex Fires) joined up with other blazes in NSW that reached to Canberra. In Victoria it burned more than 1.1 million hectares, killed more than 9000 livestock and destroyed 41 homes.

Benambra was hit hard on Australia Day 2003.

The tiny town’s public buildings became makeshift sleeping quarters for hundreds of CFA volunteers and only when the fire was contained, after 59 days, could Danny, like many CFA firefighters who have battled bushfires before and since, assess the damage to his own property.

“I lost about 10 to 15 acres of land, 11 cows and a bush hut. The fire came really close to my home.” Danny remains captain of Benambra CFA.

“I don’t think about it (the 2003 fires) much these days. For a few years afterwards I would, and I’d get emotional about it, but enough time has passed for me to feel I’ve moved on.”

Now, Danny and about 60,000 CFA volunteers are preparing for a new fire season. The CFA warns it could arrive early this year. Visit cfa.vic.gov.au for updates.

Written by Kathryn Kernohan, Photos Simon O'Dwyer (Fairfax Media / The Age)
November 02, 2015