When Castlemaine Primary School education support staff and AEU member Jan Hull finished up for the summer break last year, the last thing she expected during the holidays was to wind up sleeping in a school for a week. “It was a bit ironic,” she says, laughing heartily.
A proud CFA volunteer for almost 30 years, stationed with Sutton Grange & Myrtle Creek Fire Brigade, Jan joined a long-haul strike team in late December sent to help out the bushfire-ravaged township of Mallacoota, some 650km away.
Jan says the principal of Mallacoota P-12 College, Tim Cashmore, was always on hand for anything they needed. Offices and classrooms were cleared so they could bunker down on airbeds and stretchers. “The school is a really important community hub, so it was great that it was saved,” she adds.
“You go from daylight to darkness, so you need to keep your bearings.”
Born and bred in Harcourt, community means everything to Jan. It’s why she volunteers with the CFA, as did her late grandfather and her parents. Her daughter does, too, as does her brother and his wife. When current COVID restrictions lift, her son will sign up as well. “We’ve got over 200 years’ living experience in the CFA, our family.”
Which made her an ideal person to help save Mallacoota. It was the first time she had joined a long-haul strike team and Jan knew four of her 28 fellow firefighters. After bussing down to Bairnsdale, they were choppered into Mallacoota.
“We had a good bird’s eye view on the way in and it just looked like matchsticks standing up, basically. There were no limbs left on the trees, and big patches of white,” she recalls.
Arriving at the airport on New Year’s Day, Jan couldn’t see the town for the haze, even though the skies were still blue. Normally each strike team would do a five-day rotation – one day travel each way plus three days’ work on the ground – but they made the call to stay on when the situation worsened.
“They feared that the fire may turn around and come back in on the other side,” Jan says. “We decided we weren’t going to put a new team in unfamiliar territory.”
On the Saturday, a reddish glow came through the trees, turning the sky blood red then pitch black as families huddled together on the beach. Jan had never seen anything like it in three decades serving with the CFA, but demonstrated steely focus.
“As weird as it sounds, it was very much a learning experience. You go from daylight to darkness, so you need to keep your bearings. You’ve got a job to do and you just do it.”
Back home in Harcourt, Jan has kept in touch with her namesake Janice, who works at the Mallacoota pub. “She fed us breakfast and tea every day and, as much trauma as she’d been through, she was the bubbliest person, no matter what time of day it was. Extraordinary community down there, and the strength of those guys to keep going.”
You could say the same of Jan. Particularly when, after such a challenging summer, she and her colleagues at Castlemaine Primary have now had to pivot to pandemic preparedness. “I opted to come in two days a week, and the other three days I’ve got a young fella doing his VCE, so I need to spend a bit of time supporting him, plus I do two hours a day on Webex with the students I’m linked with.”
Her resilience stood her in good stead. “It probably lets you prioritise things a bit easier, focusing on the wellbeing of the staff and the kids,” she says. “We’re all in good spirits.”
Jan even organised for one of the CFA pumpers to show up in the schoolyard. “We did an emergency evacuation drill and got all the kids to have a go squirting the hose. They loved it. Quite a few didn’t realise what I do outside of school, so they were like, ‘Whoa, Jan!’”