The cool head that helped lead one NSW region through the most devastating bushfires in recent history is hanging up the boots.
John Cullen has been Bega'sDeputy Fire Control Officer and then Fire Control Officer for the past 28 years.
On Friday he steps down from his role as manager of the Far South Coast Rural Fire Service, admitting that he will miss it, but that the time was right.
"I've been blessed to have had the opportunities I've had," John told the Bega District News. "To have worked alongside so many dedicated people - I feel thankful for this chance.
"I will miss it. It's in your head and you build your lifestyle around it for so many years.
"I've been fortunate with good health and a wonderful family around me - my 2IC Robyn and our three children, they are all so supportive. In the early days Robyn would help with duty and radios.
"This is a hungry, hungry job timewise, and they understood from a young age that you can't predict it day to day, but they have been so understanding."
To have worked alongside so many dedicated people - I feel thankful for this chance. I will miss it.- John Cullen
John said his journey began in 1977 when he started a new job with the Imlay Shire Council on its outdoor team.
In those days the fire control was handled by council with Phil Collins its Fire Control Officer (FCO).
John was part of the crew that would help local fire brigades with burn-offs around town, cleaning up afterwards, following the graders and slashers around - "anytime there were fires we'd jump in and help, as a council worker".
"We had one radio system that's how you communicated back then - no mobile phones. You got on the radio and talked to other crews, grader drivers or whatever - it's interesting how things have evolved.
"Back in those days as a council worker we did the lot. We constructed the road, did the fencing, did the pipes, the concreting the tarring and then go to the next project.
"In those times, in '77, we were young and fit and the FCO would grab you, 'can you come and give us a hand?' And you would go follow a dozer or build a trail that you knew because you understood the area and the machinery.
"That was how the whole thing started."
In 1981 the three shires amalgamated and John's role expanded with it, particularly in a region burgeoning with development and in need of advice on fire risk and management.
In 1993, FCO Phil Collins called for applications for a deputy after the council received funding for a role that would be split between fire control and weeds officer.
A simple cover letter and a job interview - "I'd never done one before" - and the job was John's.
"Phil said 'you've got the job because you're already dealing with the community, you know farmers and what they're going through and being able to relate to people is key'.
"That was the happiest day of my life," John recalled.
"I remember Phil did say to me 'John, don't make a decision on this today, this job will take over your life'.
"And I said 'I'm ready for it'. Yes it takes over your life - the job demands that. It was a big commitment, but I'm comfortable with that."
Thankfully, John said, the council received additional funding not long after to make the deputy FCO a full time role so he didn't have to assist a farmer with a burn one day then penalise them for weeds the next!
A lot of John's role as deputy FCO was in team management and operation organisation, as well as providing advice to council on development in the shire, ensuring that the growing region was aware of the inherent risk and mitigating it as much as possible.
That role of community awareness and advice continues to be one of the RFS's main tenets to this day.
However, John's leadership in times of crisis is what stands out, not only in recent years.
In 1994 there was a big fire season causing "enormous damage" across the state, including in Batemans Bay and Mogo, but which resulted in a lot of changes in the service, John said, with bushfire management committees established, and increased vehicle numbers and new radio systems.
Then in 1997 he was among the teams providing emergency response to the Thredbo Landslide disaster.
In 1999, poultry flu hit Gosford and again the Far South Coast RFS lent a hand, with almost two million birds reported to have been destroyed in that outbreak.
That same year saw a big hailstorm hit Sydney with RFS providing plenty of help with emergency crews there too.
In 2002 fires again struck in force across the Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands, while in 2003 Canberra bore the brunt of nature's wrath.
John and his team have been right among it each time.
It was in 2002 that Phil Collins retired and John "was fortunate" to be elevated into the top role of FCO for the Bega Valley.
"I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a great mentor. I've always had great mentors and people around me. I've built and forged a lot of relationships with volunteers, community, agencies, the councils.
"I was proud to have the opportunity to lead the Bega Valley as FCO."
The service changed again in 2005 when Eurobodalla and Bega Valley joined forces, bringing together 49 brigades and around 1800 volunteers, with John initially taking on roles in community engagement and operations.
And then in 2009 was successful in attaining the manager's role for the entire Far South Coast, the role he has held until his retirement this week.
"The job's been very good to me, but the time is right for myself and for the service. There's new staffing and new structure at area command, so it works out well.
"I will still be involved as a volunteer in the service, helping people less fortunate than myself.
"But it will be a slower pace - there's huge pace in this role.
"I still have the passion and love for the RFS. You meet so many lovely people and I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to be involved."
As John heads from the control room where he has faced and fought some of the region's worst fires, to farming and gardening at his property in Bemboka, one wonders what impression of fire he is left with after nearly three decades.
"The absolute highest respect. It's something we live with. We live in a beautiful area but we also live with some risk.
"[But] I know the time's right for me. I've been blessed to have the opportunities I've had, and certainly the opportunity to work alongside so many wonderful dedicated, skilled, loyal district staff, along with committed skilful agency staff from National Parks and State Forests and other agency ranks.
"The RFS is a big family and you can go and help wherever needed. A large number of state and interstate staff and volunteers flocked to the Far South Coast to assist during the last three years to help in our time of need. It's pretty humbling to work alongside these people.
"I've been going to do this for a couple of years, but a few things got in the way.
"I'm leaving very happy.
"It still amazes me how good our volunteers are - self-sacrificing, inspiring, professional.
"I really want to stress that it's not all about John Cullen. It's about working alongside a very big team, and getting that team together to make it happen. That's what's important and that's the way I've worked.
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