Watching footage of bushfires fills retired firefighter John Robinson with dread, because he knows exactly how challenging it is for the crews battling to control them.
“Most fireys would rather have a factory fire, than a real bad bushfire because you’re really at the mercy of nature and Australia is one of those countries – it’s absolutely gorgeous and magnificent, but it can turn on you,” John explains.
The Kallangur resident faced all kinds of fires in his 36 years in the job he says was the perfect fit for a larrikin who felt good about helping others.
It wasn’t a job he set out to do, and came about when he’d returned to his home town of Mt Isa in 1981 to find there were no jobs in the mines. John thought it would do until “a real job came along”.
“Once I got in, I thought where have they been hiding this demi-paradise … It was just the right job for the right person at the time,” he explains.
“I warmed to it and didn’t get instantly good at it, you have to learn and put in. I wasn’t a natural, but I had enough brain power to work out the formulas and things we had to use then for pumping.
“I warmed to the intellectual side of things and I really enjoyed the camaraderie. That was astonishing. You hear people say ‘it made a man of me’ and it really sort of did.”
In 1993 he and his family moved to Brisbane and he worked at all of the fire stations to the north of Brisbane and many on the southside.
That camaraderie he enjoyed whilst working in Mt Isa followed him to the big smoke and continued to follow him when he retired in 2017.
He and a few former firefighter mates, John Luhrs and Glenn Bell, regularly began meeting about two years ago for coffee at the Lillybrook shopping centre.
That group quickly grew to now when they catch up with about 80 current and retired firefighters, of all ranks, at Club Pine Rivers for a coffee morning every month.
They exchange stories from the old days, have a laugh and refer to each other by the nicknames earned on the job. There’s a tight bond forged in the flames, heat and smoke, and galvanised by banter and “Aussie humour”.
“There was always something funny that would happen at a fire. People trying to be helpful and absolutely stuffing the job up,” John explains.
While John enjoys a joke, and would never miss a banter opportunity with his mates, he was driven by something stronger in every shift. He likens it to part of a music video to a song called Shine a Light by Robbie Robertson.
“There’s a scene in that that probably epitomises the great feeling you used to get not so much from saving a life, which is the main thing, or saving a house or saving a budgie … you’ve done something to put a smile on someone’s face or wipe the tears away and that was just great,” he explains.
“There’s a scene in it where you see kids turning around because there’s a fire engine going through and there’s these urban African/American blokes playing basketball who also turn around when the siren and lights go by.
“Just that feeling that you’re important and you’re making a contribution. You love it when you’ve pulled a good trick and you got a fire out in a tricky way or unusual way.”
His son Devon followed him in to the job in 2016, and the pair worked together on John’s last job – a fire at Boondall Wetlands in 2017.
John says he knew as he was crawling through the mud on that day, he’d made the right decision to call it quits and realised it had been an amazing ride.
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