CFA volunteer recognised for over 55 years of service

Ken Stuart was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal. Photo: Contributed

A CFA volunteer firefighter for more than 55 years, Kenneth (Ken) Stuart was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) in the 2023 Australia Day Honours.

Mr Stuart was recognised for his strong leadership and dedication to the CFA.

Inspired to join CFA following the 1965 Gippsland fires, Mr Stuart first signed on as a volunteer in 1967.

After climbing the ranks and spending 20 years as captain of Mount Taylor Fire Brigade, his leadership skills are highly regarded.

Mr Stuart has played a role in several significant fires, including the 2003 Alpine fires, the 2006-07 Alpine fires and the 2019-20 Black Summer fires.

When fires broke out in the Alpine region in January 2003, Mount Taylor Fire Brigade developed a strong connection with both the Omeo Fire Brigade and the Omeo community.

Mount Taylor provided and manned their brigade-owned light tanker for rapid response around the town, then loaned the tanker to the Omeo brigade for six weeks until after the fires were extinguished.

In 2016, Mount Taylor donated their replaced light tanker to the Omeo Brigade.

Under Mr Stuart’s leadership, Mount Taylor Brigade initiated a program of assisting farmers with post-fire (and later post-flood) recoveries.

Following the 2003 Alpine fires, 33 brigade members and their families spent 11 weekends clearing and replacing burnt fencing on 15 properties in the Benambra, Bindi, Black Mountain and Gelantipy areas.

This tradition continued for many years, with brigade members spending many weekends removing and replacing fencing on multiple properties within the local area after emergency events.

In November 2011, in recognition of this work and the brigade’s community engagement activities, Mount Taylor Fire Brigade became the first brigade in Victoria to receive a Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Community Service from the CFA Board. “It was a big honour and very special to receive the Special Recognition Award,” Mr Stuart said.

“But also, after we helped people with their fences, you’d leave and shake hands and many of our members were leaving with a lump in their throat and a tear in their eye.

“It was this huge sense of achievement that you’d helped someone and made a difference – a very powerful feeling.”

During the 2006-07 Alpine fires, in collaboration with Department of Sustainability and Environment (now DEECA) and Sarsfield Fire Brigade, Mount Taylor Fire Brigade under Mr Stuart’s leadership completed 95 kilometres of back-burning and control work. Mr Stuart is renowned as a mentor of others in fuel reduction and back-burning.

He has worked in educating many other CFA members in safely undertaking fuel reduction and in safe techniques.

He has also worked to educate the community on the benefits of fuel-reduction burns.

Mr Stuart said it’s important to share skills and knowledge with others, and learn from others as he did as a young member.

“When I first joined the brigade, I looked up to our senior members, and now I’m the senior member,” he said.

“There’s lots of valuable knowledge floating around and it’s important to pass that down.”

Despite Mr Stuart’s own property being burnt on December 30, 2019, he remained active in the community, checking on the welfare of other affected landholders and liaising with relief committees to ensure that those who required assistance received it.

While waiting for his own fence to be fixed, he took the initiative to help eight other farmers fix theirs.

Mr Stuart said he was humbled to receive the AFSM.

“It was quite a shock to me – but a pleasant one. It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realised that I do have quite a lot of experience and knowledge, and I just want to share that with others.”