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Unprecedented Bushfires Put Australia’s Firefighting Forces to the Test

Many of the country's firefighters are volunteers, with a shared commitment to protecting their communities.


Australia Wildfires

Bushfires near Moyhu, Australia, on Jan. 11, 2020. Fighting fires "is a way of helping the community," said Alan Sampson, a Moyhu Fire Brigade Captain who has been fighting fires for 40 years. (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)

The three Australian firefighters were on the frontlines of a bushfire, in the middle of the largest wilderness area of New South Wales, due northwest from Sydney.

During the evening of November 12, 2019, the men were hosing down the buildings on the ground of Elim Heights Youth Camp, a campground run by the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement.

It was the first firefighting action for one of them, according to Phil Hurst, a divisional commander of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

“They were caught out of the truck as the fire just woofed through. The actual air just exploded above where they were, ignited by the surrounding Eucalyptus trees’ oil,” Hurst, a volunteer firefighter for 30 years, told Direct Relief.

“These three guys were stuck together.”

The fire’s unexpected path and 100-foot wall of flames had blocked them from their truck, which was about 15 meters away from them. The only barrier they had was a nearby building, which was already on fire. They ran behind it, and kept their hoses flowing. One of the men took off his mask, in an attempt to get more oxygen, since the fire was eating up so much of it. The heat burned his throat and lungs.

One of the men, a veteran with decades of experience, recalled to Hurst they “were fighting for their lives.”

And each one was a volunteer.

As the water was about to run out, the fire died down next to them. Their 20-hour shift had finally ended.

Bushfire near Moyhu that Sampson's brigade fought on January 13 (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)
Bushfires near Moyhu that Sampson’s brigade fought on January 8, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)

Australia’s fires have always been fought mostly by volunteers, who currently number 152,798 in total, according to a Productivity Commission report published last month.  Though the figure represents a decline of about 10% from a decade ago, the country boasts the world’s largest volunteer firefighting force, according to the BBC.

But the scale of the most recent series of blazes, which have burned more than 27 million acres of land since September and killed at least 33 people, have led to changes.

In December, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that New South Wales Rural Fire Service volunteers would receive AUS$300 per day and up to AUS$6,000 for 10 consecutive days of work. Two other states, Queensland and South Australia, are also now part of the policy. However, Victoria, which is one of the hardest-hit states along with NSW, and Western Australia are not. Volunteers are subject to many terms, which limit who is eligible to receive pay.

In Australia, firefighting operations are mostly paid by a mix of funds sourced by city councils, state governments, and insurance companies.

Phil Hurst speaking with Amarica Rafanelli (Chris Alleway/ Direct Relief)
NWS Rural Fire Service Commander Phil Hurst speaking with Direct Relief’s Amarica Rafanelli about firefighting operations. (Chris Alleway/ Direct Relief)

The move towards compensation for volunteers was welcomed by salaried firefighters, who are charged with organizing volunteers and devising strategies for containing fires.

“Australia is, and always has been, and always will be, a country that’s susceptible to fire. We need to look at the different options, since we can only do so much with the workforce we have,” said Karen Hodges, fire control officer in the Hawkesbury local government district. She has seven staffers who oversee about 2,000 volunteers.

As the roles have been unpaid historically, those with decades of experience were able to shed light on what motivates people to volunteer their time and enter risky situations.

“It’s a cultural thing, volunteerism in Australia is a big thing. That’s an Australian way,” said Hurst, a volunteer. “It’s a fantastic group of people, it’s a way of helping the community and I just feel good about it.”

“That’s what Australia’s all about, you help your mate. We were helping our friends down south (in NSW), and they came up to help us,” said Hodges.

Bushfire near Moyhu that Sampson's brigade fought on January 11 (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)
Bushfires near Moyhu that Sampson’s brigade fought on January 11, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)

“It’s a way of helping the community, and different communities,” said Alan Sampson, a Moyhu Fire Brigade Captain who has been fighting fires for 40 years, and is a retired high school teacher. “These blokes are down to earth, hard-working country people. We have diverse backgrounds, but everyone’s got the same objective in mind, which is to save lives and put the fire out and save people, and their homes and property, if they can.”

Most of his volunteers are farmers and ranchers. Hurst said volunteers to his unit sometimes commute in from cities over 100 kilometers away.

Sampson’s brigade has been in action since 1904, and was folded into a larger Victoria scheme that was implemented after the Black Friday bushfires of 1939, which burned almost 5 million acres of land and killed 71 people.

Facing a Fire

Sampson recounted the Black Saturday fires in 2009, which resulted in the deaths of 173 people, and that he said were comparable to the fires currently raging.

Bushfire near Moyhu that Sampson's brigade fought on January 14 (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)
Bushfires near Moyhu that Sampson’s brigade fought on January 14, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Moyhu Fire Brigade)

“We were standing where one of the fires had burned through. It was 2 a.m., and it was still 42 degrees (Celsius) and on the ground, you could still feel the heat from where the fire had been hours before. Our boots had rubber soles, and it was still warming the bottom of our feet,” he said.

“This time, it probably wasn’t quite as hot at that time of the morning. The wind was roughly the same. You could see a red glow coming through the bush, you could hear it coming and it was spitting out embers ahead of the main fire front.

“You can hear trees branches falling out, sort of a dull roar coming through. And you hear the grass burning,” he said.

Hodges said the fires this season have been “horrific” as well as “erratic” because of the drought preceding them.

“The biggest fires I’ve seen in 31 years,” she said, adding that they have mostly been started by lightning strikes. “When you go out to fight a fire of this magnitude, it’s all fairly dangerous, you just gotta watch out,” Sampson said.

Asked what it’s like to be on the frontlines, Hurst said, “Scary?” but noted that he and his crew are not “fighting a wall of flames” most of the time.

The Legacy Continues

The latest chapter in the Moyhu fire brigade’s history was written this past Christmas, when fires hit their area.

Sampson said he had more volunteers than he needed on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. “No one complained,” he said.

Shifts ran for about 12 hours, usually.

“You might get relieved, but you just keep going if no one spells you. You’re there to do a job and you do it to the best of your ability,” Sampson said.

Both Sampson and Hurst noted the importance of keeping their crews safe. All volunteers undergo basic firefighter training, a 6-month probation period, and then more specialized training for specific roles and equipment.

“I know what’s likely to happen, but you’ve got a crew of blokes and if you’re the captain, you’re in charge of those blokes. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on. Their safety is paramount,” he said.

“Sometimes there are younger people on the truck, so you’ve got to make sure to not get in a situation that frightens the hell of them,” he said.

As Sampson was explaining his plans for clean-up and post-fire operation, a loud beeping noise began in the background.

“Sorry mate, that’s a fire. I’ve got to take the call.”

– Additional reporting contributed by Amarica Rafanelli from Hawkesbury, Australia. 

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