WHEN it comes to fire this town leaves nothing to chance, writes Colin Taylor
There's something about Rushworth.
Once bustling with thousands of gold-diggers and the base of a thriving timber industry, this tucked-away northern Victorian town on the edge of the Waranga Basin is now home to about 1000 residents and is a service centre for the district's farmers.
Rushworth takes pride in its heritage buildings and surrounding bushland - proclaimed the largest box-ironbark forest in the world - but when it comes to community fire awareness and preparedness, the town punches well above its weight.
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When a quarter of the population will come to a fire meeting, when visiting bushfire assessors are run off their feet, and statewide awards come two years in a row, you know you're doing something right.
Cass Alexander is a keen member of the Rushworth fire brigade.
Formerly the local SES controller and now on the CFA's Community Education Reference Group, Mr Alexander said the 22-member Rushworth brigade worked within the Waranga Group, which also includes Colbinabbin, Corop, Corop West, Stanhope and Girgarre.
He said Black Saturday galvanised the town into action.
"Fear was the precipitating factor," he said.
"After Black Saturday, fire authorities came up with a list of 52 vulnerable towns. We weren't on it.
"Yet we have box-ironbark forest extending 80km southwards beyond Heathcote and wheat plains and dryland agricultural areas to the north, so there's a huge potential fire risk right on our doorstep.
"A group of residents decided to act and called a meeting at the shire hall - 250 people turned up."
That meeting commissioned a group to compile a community fire plan, which saw the team recognised in the Victorian Fire Awareness Awards in 2010 and again last year when the plan was reissued.
Working closely with the Shire of Campaspe, DSE, CFA and the Rushworth fire brigade, group members did a risk analysis, looking at what infrastructure was important to residents and where potential difficulties could arise.
Several local myths were shot down: most people, for example, would flee north, but a one-lane bridge over the Waranga channel would be a highly dangerous bottleneck for panicked residents and advancing fire trucks.
The football ground was seen as a refuge, but it's surrounded by forest, would be bathed in radiant heat, has only one access road and could be cleared in any case for helicopters.
The group's fire plan was put up on DSE noticeboards, in the local supermarket, bakery, the hospitals and elsewhere.
"The following year, we revised the plan as a booklet and sent it to every household," Mr Alexander said.
"The local Waranga News has given huge coverage to little stories that catch the eye - some new equipment, students visiting, training drills, anything that involves the fire brigade and reassures the town.
"A team from the CFA's Home Bushfire Assessment Program came to Rushworth last year and did almost 80 visits in a week - the highest pro-rata uptake of anywhere in the state.
"We run the town's Christmas fete at the fire station and have done so for the past 80 years, though this year the local SES and other community groups are joining in.
"That gets 200 to 300 people in to have a look around. The Australia Day activities each year at the shire hall attract 300 to 400 people.
This year, organisers got some of the local brigade captains and SES personnel up on stage and they received a five-minute standing ovation.
"Our last Fire-Ready Victoria briefing saw a huge turnout and, in conjunction with some neighbouring brigades, we deliver a Year 9 course at Rushworth P-12 where the kids come out as fully qualified wildfire fighters."
Rushworth is also one of three locations - along with Taradale and Murrayville in South Australia - chosen for an CFA pilot project, Fire-Ready Towns.
"The critical thing is to keep fire in the minds of the town at all times and build a sense of credibility," Mr Alexander said.
Rushworth brigade captain Graeme Wall said the town had sound pre-summer planning in place.