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"I had a moment of terror": On frontline of rural firies

Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley.Photo: Emily Smith

"I had a moment of terror": On frontline of rural firies

THE inside of a fire truck is quiet as it hurries, lights flashing, towards an emergency. Like the quiet before a storm.

As Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley sits in the truck's passengers seat, she said she's mentally preparing; thinking about what might await them.

It could be a house fire, like the one she attended last year, the first time she'd seen a home burnt to the ground in 15 years on the job; or a shed full of pressure vessels, like another accident last year that left a urban fire fighter injured.

Maxine, who calls herself a "foot soldier", is one of the few active woman fire fighters Habana station has ever seen, and she said it's very satisfying to "be part of the team knowing that you are accepted equally, with the same expectations as the guys, just getting on with the hot, dirty job".

It's almost easy to assume that Maxine must be fearless, because she lives life with so much enthusiasm.

But the fire fighter, and former air hostess, hot air balloon navigator and champion gymnast, said there was a time when a job had left her momentarily frozen with fear, as she faced the intensity and height of the fire.

As she spoke from the deck of her hilltop Habana home on Tuesday, Maxine recalled one Melbourne Cup day fire on the Yakapari-Habana Rd when sheer terror had stopped her, just for a split second.

Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley.Photo: Emily Smith
Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley.Photo: Emily Smith Emily Smith

"My yoga teacher had just had a hip replacement. So I said 'I'm coming over, I'm bringing smoked salmon and champagne, put on all your bling'," Maxine said.

"And I'd just arrived, when I felt something in my pocket, and thought 'that can't be my phone'.

"So I raced out in all my Melbourne Cup Day clothes. I tore off all the bling and put my gear on. As I drove to the station I noticed it was a terribly hot, windy day."

She and Habana Station's first officer Mark Walshe were the first truck to take off to the fire and, as other urban and rural crews arrived, they found themselves at the coalface of the blaze trying to protect a home as the flames made their way into the crown of surrounding trees.

"I can just remember standing with the hose thinking 'I can't go'," she said.

"I had that moment of terror. But then I thought 'this is my job' and I went. I was really scared. We just caught that fire."

Before Maxine ever became a fire-fighter, she worked a series of jobs that left her "accustomed to emergency procedure".

After training as a competitive gymnast, who ranked fourth in Australia the year the first place holder represented Australia in gymnastics for the first time at the Rome Olympics, Maxine became an air hostess.

Despite suffering from air sickness, the West Australian worked for Ansett and later with luxury charter companies, where they served champagne while flying only 500 feet above the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

"As soon as I felt sick, I knew there would be passengers feeling sick. I'd get some nice cold icy cloths and I could walk through the cabin and I could just tell," she said.

"People's eyes focus differently when they're feeling really sick."

The motion sickness later prevented her from becoming a pilot, because although she had completed all the academic tests towards the ticket no one would rent her a plane to carry out the solo navigation exercises.

"The turbulence could get so bad (around Sydney) they were worried I would get sick and crash the plane," she said, with a laugh.

"I just loved being in the air. It was as if I was born to be in the air. Being in the air just didn't really love me."

But later hot air ballooning gave her a way to fly without feeling ill.

Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley.Photo: Emily Smith
Habana Rural Fire Brigade's Maxine Godley.Photo: Emily Smith Emily Smith

At The Rocks in Sydney, she worked for a company that would tie the balloon to a lamppost or four-wheel drive and show passengers the best view of the city.

She still returns to Canberra every year to compere the Balloon Spectacular.

It was 1989 when she came to Mackay, and after buying land at Habana and building a house, she showed up at the Habana Station one day in February 15 years ago.

At first, she believed the other crew members were sceptical about her commitment, and didn't sign her up until September.

But she's now become one of the brigade's vital inner crew, and was recognised this Australia Day for her "dedication, commitment and loyalty" to the service.