AUSTRALIA – Among the firefighters facing enormous blazes burning across New South Wales are bakers, teachers, nurses, accountants, mechanics, retirees and full-time parents.
Bushfires have been burning across eastern Australia since well before summer, amid recurring heatwaves and an intense drought. Six people have died, more than 2m hectares of land have been scorched and more than 700 homes destroyed.
Overwhelmingly, those on the frontline fighting the fires are not paid professionals. Volunteers from the state’s Rural Fire Service (RFS) carry emergency pagers and rush from their work at offices, hospitals and factories to pull on their yellow and navy firefighting uniforms.
Volunteer firefighting has a long and proud history in Australia. But with exhaustion setting in and the hottest months of summer still ahead, there are concerns about how firefighters can go on unpaid, leaving their families, homes, workplaces and summer holidays behind.
Alastair Breingan, a volunteer and retired IT worker, fought fires on the mid-north coast with his brigade for 10-day stretches during October and November, sometimes putting in 12-hour shifts and falling into bed at 4am.
In mid-November he saw a fire roaring towards his bushland property near the village of Upper Lansdowne and stayed behind to protect his house. “It was just a huge plume of smoke, very, very dark smoke,” Breingan said. “It was burning quite fiercely. What surprised us was that it came over a ridge very, very hot.”
His colleagues managed to stop the blaze from moving beyond tennis courts near the village school. “We’ve got people who have been in the brigade for 25 years who said they’ve never seen anything like that; it travelled four kilometres in about 20 minutes.”
A group of former emergency chiefs have called for a parliamentary inquiry into whether emergency services are adequately resourced to respond to this growing threat in an arid country.
Ken Thompson, a former deputy urban fire chief and representative of the Australian Firefighters Climate Alliance, said NSW firefighters were already “shattered”. “I just fundamentally believe the entire system is not designed for this type of situation – much longer fire seasons than we’ve ever seen before,” he said.
Chris Nicholls, a volunteer from Merimbula, on the far south coast, wrote an open letter to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, criticising what he called inaction on the bushfire emergency. The letter urged Morrison to launch a major response to bushfires and climate change, with greater resources, technology and planning.
“When I see my colleagues from my brigade jump into a plane or a bus … to go into battle against an unprecedented enemy of catastrophic proportions, I wonder if we might ever see them again. And they are my friends and wonderful people,” Nicholls wrote.
“When my RFS pager goes off in the middle of a hot, blustery severe fire danger day and I have to rush off to a bushfire, and as I am sitting in the truck proceeding under sirens and lights to the fire, I wonder if this might be my last day too.”
Some RFS crews have been crowdfunding for extra resources, including the Copacabana brigade on the central coast who sought donations to buy heavy-duty face masks.
When asked whether volunteer crews needed to be paid, Morrison rejected suggestions that the RFS should be professionalised. “The volunteer effort is a big part of our natural disaster response and it is a big part of how Australia has always dealt with these issues,” he said.
Morrison said the volunteers felt strongly about their work and managed by rotating their shifts. “And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate their shifts to give them those breaks but … in many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.”
A long history
Farmers and rural residents have long protected their communities from fire. Newspaper articles from the summer of 1916 describe a “big batch” of neighbours in a “stern fight” to help a sheep farmer save his flock from a bushfire in the central west.
A century on, the RFS is a modern, highly organised version of those early local brigades, made up of more than 70,000 volunteers and 1,000 paid staff, equipped with 4,000 tankers, and assisted by water bombing aircraft.
Their efforts are bolstered by smaller numbers of paid firefighters from the urban Fire and Rescue NSW squads, national parks and forestry workers and, occasionally, the army.
Breingan said the volunteer model worked because it would not be possible to pay many thousands of people to be on call every day. He said community involvement and knowledge was highly valuable and potential volunteers may be put off by added bureaucracy.
“We had young lads with utes [utility vehicles] and water tanks going around putting out spot fires, and they probably saved a house or two given that we didn’t have enough people on the ground to get to a lot of them,” he said. “We need to keep that community closer than we have been.”
But he knows all too well the exhaustion that comes from long, hot, smokey days with limited backup. “There will be people in active fires who have been going for a week or 10 days and they will be feeling ‘this is our backyard, we have to keep going’,” he said. “They’ll be pushing themselves.
“They want to be there because they feel it’s their backyard to protect, but if they had somebody to take over they’d say yes please and thank you.”
Many RFS crews say the devastating fire conditions, that have created a lingering haze over Sydney and other cities and towns, have only encouraged more people to sign up.
Debbie Ronan, from the Eglinton brigade in the central west, can understand that motivation. Ronan, an accountant and mother of two, joined the RFS after seeing volunteer firefighters save her parents’ house near Bathurst a few years ago.
“All we could see was an eerie glow,” she said. “Before we left the house, we could see embers and just the glow on the hill. It was something I’d never seen before.
“My mum said she’ll never forget what they did for her.”