John St Clair felt it hard when a shed burned on his watch.
It was January 2014, and the then Country Fire Authority volunteer was part of the team tasked with protecting Northern Grampians Road properties from the Northern Grampians Complex Fire.
No people or animals were in it at the time, and he and his colleagues did what they could to prevent it, but it still felt like a loss.
"The Grampians was definitely a big learning curve for me," he said. "It was the first time I'd lost something like that in a wildfire. I had a member with me in the car, and he helped me through it saying ''If a shed goes, it goes, they can rebuild it, let's focus on people's houses'.
"I've been involved in major house fires and building fires before, but you look at a bushfire and you usually know what you need to do to stop it from getting somewhere.
"The fire that day, however, was just unpredictable: When we went up there we were told the fire went through the night before, and it had, but it hadn't burned anything and it came back in on itself.
"It meant we didn't finish protecting one house before we had to send crews to the next one."
For two straight weeks, Mr St Clair and other volunteers fought the fires in 12 hour shifts. Despite the danger, he said they lost one house and never put their lives at risk.
"We only went in as far as the scout camp," he said. "There are 30 or 40 homes there, some in the bush we didn't know about that still had residents in them. The only support for the four trucks I could get that day was five aircraft.
"Were it not for them, we would have lost multiple homes and probably multiple people. We did have to get people out of holiday homes not from Australia that didn't realise what was happening."
Later that year, Mr St Clair became the captain of Horsham Fire Station, a role he continues in today.
Originally from Mount Druitt in western Sydney, he moved to Ballarat to be closer to his parents. He was originally in the army reserves, but joined the CFA in 1997 at the suggestion of a friend after he couldn't find work.
"Joining got me more motivated and organised in life, and I just found things rolled on from there. I got plenty of employment through people through the CFA that I knew," he said. "It's a big family that all looks after each other."
Mr St Clair moved to Horsham after he and his wife Cara got offered jobs in the city on the same day. Cara now works at Horsham Primary 298 Rasmussen Road, while Mr St Clair is a contract administrator at Inroads Horsham.
Since July 1, the CFA has been a volunteer-only organisation, with the paid commanders at the District 17 office in McLachlan Street being seconded over to the new paid organisation Fire Rescue Victoria.
Mr St Clair said he did not expect this to change the way firefighters went about their business.
"Everything we've been told and seen so far suggests being in the Wimmera, it won't have any impact on us," he said.
"Four weeks ago, we had paid firefighters from Ballarat come up to Horsham with their appliance to help us with the Vic Hotel fire, and we've had them to help us with the Commercial Hotel fire, and that will continue.
"We had a study done in our brigade about four years ago on whether paid firefighters would be a good option for Horsham. At the time we were able to prove Horsham volunteers can do the job, but you can never rule it out: The community is always growing and expanding and getting more risk, especially in industrial areas.
What has changed for firefighters has been how they educate residents about fire danger. Mr St Clair said pandemic restrictions had prevented them from the community education side of their work.
"We've been doing an electrical safety day coming into winter in the last two years, and we've found the number of calls to houses has dropped compared to the years before the initiative," he said. "If you've got something to bring in, by all means we will test it.
"This year, there has been a slight increase in callouts this winter, but I put it down to the current situation where everyone is locked up at home and can't go anywhere. People are doing little jobs around the house and might not quite be aware of what something does if they leave it turned on too long. Just before winter we had a slight increase in calls for people burning off in their backyard."
Despite the Wimmera's slowly declining population Mr St Clair said the Horsham brigade had a stable number of volunteers.
"We've been pretty lucky, we're sitting around 90-odd members and have been for seven or eight years," he said. "We do lose some through retirement or people moving home, but we run a recruitment drive and actively target people we need.
"We might find we need firefighters because we're low on numbers, or it might be that we need someone to help around the social side of the station: there is a lot to do to keep things tidy. There is brigades in school, where volunteers go out to school and teach them about Triple Zero, crawling low in smoke and fire safety."
Mr St Clair said the brigades goal, and that of the district office, was to keep it as a volunteer brigade.
"We do our best to keep it 100 per cent volunteer, and I'm happy to learn where we need to work to make sure it can stay that way," he said.
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