It’s an honour

LIFETIME OF SERVICE: Rex Fuge received the Fire Service Medal in the Queen's Birthday honours. Photo: Rural Fire Service Mid Lachlan Valley.
LIFETIME OF SERVICE: Rex Fuge received the Fire Service Medal in the Queen's Birthday honours. Photo: Rural Fire Service Mid Lachlan Valley.

The fire front was a mile wide and the volunteer crew was in trouble. 

They took refuge on a bald hill and watched the fire fade around them for lack of fuel.

That day, a young Rex Fuge realised fire breaks could save lives and property, and he began a life long campaign to encourage others to establish and maintain them. 

In Monday’s Queen’s Birthday honours, he was awarded the Fire Service Medal for his work – more than 67 years of volunteering with the Rural Fire Service. 

Mr Fuge joined the Carrawandool Rural Fire Brigade in 1950 and in the years since has seen tragedy, victory and change. 

Today, he remains a member of the Mid Lachlan Valley team bush fire management committee offering his wealth of experience at a strategic level, meeting with representatives of councils and other authorities twice a year. 

Mr Fuge grew up on the family farm at West Wirrinya and worked with his dad until he married Elva, that’s 57 years ago now, and took up a farm in the Lake Cowal area. 

They raised four children on the property – Sue, Karen, Tony and Matthew.

His father was the captain of the Rural Fire Brigade when they met the fire that ignited Rex’s passion for fire breaks. 

The small crew was facing a mile-wide fire front with only a manual pump, Rex had the pump primed, but found the tank had drained on their drive to the fire.

“We were in a very bad situation,” he recalled this week as if it was yesterday.

“What saved us from being burned to death was a fella came past in an old ute … dad said, he knows where he’s going follow him!” 

They did – to bare ground where the sheep on the property had been mustered. They survived.

Mr Fuge began to push for fire breaks, ensuring his own property had them and ploughing them along the sides of the Newell Highway. 

Today, firebreaks constructed by landholders run south of Forbes adjacent to the Newell Highway for more than 50km and he was instrumental in getting these completed and maintained.

These breaks have been responsible for controlling or slowing numerous fires over many years.

His own property has been saved – and fire stopped – by his meticulous work on his own firebreaks. 

Mr Fuge became captain of his local brigade, a position he retained for many years.

The role includes routine tasks like issuing permits for hazard reduction burns, but has also led him to tragedy including fires and car accidents where people have died tragically.

It has also meant getting up and going at a moment’s notice, in some horror weather conditions or just when you’d rather not. 

The young Rex was sitting down to Christmas dinner in the days he was courting Elva when the call of “fire!” came through. 

He never did get that Christmas dinner. 

So much has changed – for the better – in the years he has been with the Rural Fire Service. 

“We had an aim to have a mobile unit in every brigade,” he said. “There were 21 or 22 brigades in the old Jemalong Shire so that was a big aim.” 

He’s pleased to have seen it come to pass. And with equipment beyond imagination in those early years. 

“When I started there was hardly a brigade,” Mr Fuge said. 

“There were farm trucks with a tank temporarily set up on the back.”

Brigades were then issued with shire trucks, mostly second hand, the current modern vehicles with their many safety features are a huge improvement.

“The trucks we have got today, you can stand up and fight a fire with those, it’s come a long way,” Mr Fuge said.

The use of aircraft in fire fighting is now common, but it wasn’t always so and as a keen aviator Mr Fuge often took to the air in his own craft, at his own expense, to look at the hazard. 

During one fire at Wirrinya – well before the current common use of aircraft – he flew the fire control officer over the area to get a big picture view of the fire and the landscape to inform his decision making.

When he received word of the Queen’s Birthday honours, Mr Fuge said he reflected on the many people he had worked with over the years. He will continue to work with the RFS. 

“It’s been a wonderful education for me,” he said.

There’s no place for complacency in Mr Fuge’s thinking.

“The past three seasons, the amount of fuel has been frightening,” he said. “I’m not a religious man, but it must have been an act of God that it started to rain just when the fire season started last year.”