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‘I could depend on him’: RFS veterans still fighting after 150 year’s combined service


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‘I could depend on him’: RFS veterans still fighting after 150 year’s combined service

After a combined 150 years of service, Bilpin Rural Fire Service veterans Albert Newton and Bill Johnson know only one way.Key points:NSW RFS veterans are recognised for 150 years combined serviceThey can remember riding pushbikes to bushfires in 1940sThe recognition is a morale boost for the community after a tough summerDuring the Black Summer fires…

‘I could depend on him’: RFS veterans still fighting after 150 year’s combined service

After a combined 150 years of service, Bilpin Rural Fire Service veterans Albert Newton and Bill Johnson know only one way.

Key points:

  • NSW RFS veterans are recognised for 150 years combined service
  • They can remember riding pushbikes to bushfires in 1940s
  • The recognition is a morale boost for the community after a tough summer

During the Black Summer fires the pair, aged 87 and 90, were supporting crews as they tried to limit the devastation of the Gospers Mountain blaze.

With them was Mr Newton’s son Jimmy, also a 40-year RFS member.

“They were just back in their old shoes doing what they’ve been doing for years since before fire trucks were around,” he said.

It’s a passion Mr Johnson said they discovered as teenagers in the 1940s.

“Volunteer firefighting is just what you do, it’s helping your neighbour, helping yourself and helping Bilpin.”

Their dedication has been formally recognised by the RFS which awarded them long service medals.

It was a welcome gesture for the countless Christmas Days and interrupted family time spent defending the lives and property of their community.

A sign in a burnt out forrest still reads 'bilpin'

The pair were assisting crews on the fire ground during December’s Gospers Mountain blaze.(Supplied: Jochen Spencer)

Rugged days forge lifetime friendship

To show their appreciation, about 300 Bilpin residents gathered along the Bells Line of Road for a surprise parade.

The town is continuing to rebuild after a number of properties were lost in December’s blaze.

“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything extraordinary, I’ve just got old,” Mr Johnson said.

While recovering from the “overwhelming” occasion, the lifelong mates have had a chance to reflect on the 70-plus years they served in the outfit.

Unlike today’s highly technical operations, rural firefighting was a rugged affair in the early days, Mr Newton said.

Crews faced the flames with “hessian bags, green sticks and a box of matches”.

“Now you’ve got an airconditioned tanker, but in the old days we had blitz trucks with 300 gallons of water and you sat on the back without much cover.”

Years of fighting off “the enemy” helped the pair forge a lasting bond.

“We’re lifetime friends, we’ve done everything together and I could depend on him,” Mr Johnson said.

Bill Johnson receives his long service medal.

Bill Johnson said years of fighting fires led to lifelong friendships.(Supplied: Nick Wood)

He remembered when they were first issued with uniforms in the 1960s — white overalls.

“We thought we were pretty cool,” he said.

Despite the limited equipment and a few “close calls” Mr Johnson said he has managed to survive more than 100 fires relatively unscathed.

“I did put a red hot stick through my lip once running through the bush but generally we looked after each other out there,” he said.

Experience and an understanding of the land also counted for a lot.

The Bilpin RFS brigade stand in front of a fire truck.

The celebration has brought the Bilpin brigade back together after some tough months.(Supplied: Nick Wood)

Irreplaceable pair

It is this knowledge that cannot be replaced, Mr Newton said.

“They taught me to stay calm, learn from your mistakes and that no two fires are the same,” he said.

The celebration last Saturday was also a chance to begin rebuilding morale after last year’s brutal campaign.

“After six months of firefighting and the coronavirus, the brigade hasn’t been back together for some time,” Mr Newton said.

While much of the bushland around the town is still blackened, there are green shoots appearing and it won’t be long before the brigade is preparing for the next campaign.

Mr Johnson said he planned to be around to offer any help he could.

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