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Into the fire

The support of his Department and the Faculty meant that this CFA volunteer could take time off to fight the inferno.

During his 16 years as a volunteer firefighter, Alejandro Satragno has confronted some of Australia’s most dramatic natural disasters. As a member of his local brigade in Hastings, the Surgery Manager in the Department of Physiology is one of many volunteers who make up the Victorian CFA.

Within this meticulously efficient organisation, Mr Satragno has taken up a range of roles, including crew leader, level 3 incident planner and strike team leader. He will soon train as a sector commander. But despite the rigorous training of the CFA, Mr Satragno, like the other volunteer firefighters, knew that Saturday 7 February would present new challenges.

“We knew it was going to be bad, and we had safety talks the day before to prepare us for it, and it was discussed, putting only the most competent people on that day, and safety was the main issue,” he says.

“You couldn’t stop that fire. All the statistics, all the figures, everything says you couldn’t stop that fire. It  was an unprecedented situation. I hope it never happens again.”

His week of 12 hour shifts began on Black Saturday with a call to lead strike team from Westernport Group to the fires at Gippsland. On the Monday after the carnage, he was deployed to Kinglake.

“We did a lot of consoling people. We still had fire on the north side. We were still trying to keep the residents who were left at ease. Talking to them. Checking their places. Doing welfare checks on people. We had control lines to try to build or reinforce,” he says.

“The CFA rested us for a couple of days and sent us out again. It’s a good system. We were not exhausted. When you consider that there were thousands and thousands of people that got sent… and we didn’t actually lose any firefighters on the firefront.”

He says that people often underestimate the intensity of the fires.

“It’s a lot of training, experience and intuition which lets you know whether what you’re confronting you can cope with or you can’t, and where the safety zones are. We have all sorts of systems in place to be able to say ‘we have to go, we can’t deal with this’. If you get caught, you then have safety and survival drills that you do and you put those in place. By and large you survive.”

To fulfil a role that regularly takes him from his paid work, Mr Satragno relies on the support of the Faculty, including that of Head of Physiology Professor Iain Clarke.

“During the fires, I didn’t have to worry at all (about taking time off work). That is absolutely terrific. Iain kept ringing every day and checking with Di [my wife] whether I needed anything, and he said ‘I don’t want to see you at work’. It’s just tremendous, to know that. It makes it so much easier,” he says.

Alejandro Satragno

Alejandro Satragno