In 2010 the CFA had 36,736 operational volunteers, compared to 34,380 in 2018-19, with many having served for decades.
Mr Cook said substantial new operational procedures had been introduced to prevent the spread of coronavirus, with firefighters expected to wear masks extensively – not just on the fireground – and sharply reduce social interaction.
“What we’re now talking about is those masks being potentially worn from the minute they get in and arrive at the station to go to an emergency to the minute they get home and disinfect and clean up,” Mr Cook said.
Some training drills that require firefighters to work in close proximity have been scrapped. And Mr Cook said post-fire procedures would be adapted.
“When the fire’s out then there’s usually a catering trailer that turns up. People gather around. There’ll be a cup of tea and a sandwich and people talk about what just happened and how they went,” he said. “We just won’t be able to do some of those things in the same manner that we would have.”
This will be the first summer under the fire service’s new structure, with the CFA and its volunteers separated from Fire Rescue Victoria, which employs paid firefighters in urban areas.
A succession of CFA leaders quit their posts as the state government rammed through a shake-up, and the CFA board was sacked in 2016 amid the fallout.
Mr Cook said he was confident the service had retained operational experience despite the chaos and controversy surrounding the restructure.
He insisted volunteers remained energetic despite a gruelling and long fire season last summer.
A wet spring is forecast for Victoria this year, which is a welcome relief to communities where bushfires started burning in September.
Despite the late start anticipated for the fire season, Mr Cook said major bushfires could still break out after successive days of hot weather and fire seasons were becoming more volatile due to climate change.
Peter Sandy’s family has grazed cattle at Swifts Creek in Gippsland for four generations and he has served as a volunteer firefighter for four decades.
In that time he has seen the fires change along with the climate.
Not long ago the pastures were dormant all winter, but now the grass grows all year around.
As the alps have grown warmer and dryer, the megafires that were once a rarity seem to menace the local community with a terrifying belligerence and insistence.
The coming of spring, once welcomed, now carries anxiety over what fires the season may bring.
“Everyone feels it. We had the 2003 fires up here but before that the last really bad ones were Black Friday in ‘39. Since 2003, we had 2008, 2009 and last summer. It just goes on.”
Mr Sandy, 67, still works as an incident controller, but would not mind stepping back. However, he does not think there is much chance of that.
It is not just that the fire seasons are worse, but over years of drought and low commodity prices many of the region’s youth and young families have moved away, leaving volunteer posts to be filled by veterans.
Mr Sandy remembers the afternoon of December 30 last year, when a vast column of smoke, cinder and flame built up over a fire complex just south of Swifts Creek, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. “They told me it was 16 kilometers high.”
Swifts Creek “dodged a bullet”, but Mr Sandy noted that just means there is more left to burn.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.