The volunteers fighting fires: 'there's always the fear you're not going to come home'

Stephanie Gardiner
The volunteers fighting fires: 'there's always the fear you're not going to come home'. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service is made up of mechanics, bakers, students, retirees and young parents. They face a dangerous Australian summer

Fire warning signs are pinned to thirsty eucalypts every few kilometres on the highway.

The paddocks around central west New South Wales look golden from a distance, but are crispy and brown underfoot. Wind has been howling for days, stirring up red dust on the horizon. Severe fire conditions are looming; it’s only the beginning of summer.

Volunteers from the Rural Fire Service in Eglinton, on the outskirts of Bathurst, have been called to a fire in steep terrain about 60 kilometres away.

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On a Wednesday evening their colleagues await their return at the station, Christmas lights twinkling under the eaves.

Clint Bawden, 81, is among them, having only recently retired as an active firefighter.

Now he does odd jobs around the station, but Bawden says firefighting is in his blood. His father worked for the Forestry Corporation and took him to fire fronts as a child.

“I used to wag school and go to every fire,” Bawden says, his stories marked by a twinkle in his eyes.

He says he was 12 when he went to a blaze on the NSW south coast, which sent people fleeing to Wairo Beach.

“There was a guy there who had a brand new Cadillac and we said, ‘You’d better run it down to the beach’. He said, ‘I can’t, it’s got no fuel’.

“Someone yelled out ‘Have you got a bottle of scotch?’. So he tipped some scotch in and fired it up and that was the only thing that was saved.

“It was a 1950 Cadillac. I’ve never forgotten that.”

The Eglinton brigade is made up of men and women of all ages. There are mechanics, bakers, an accountant, a university student, and many are parents to young children.

Locals have decorated a shrub outside the station, a printed sign saying: “Thank you to our fireys”. Recently neighbours have delivered homemade cakes to show their gratitude.

That sentiment stretches across drought-stricken NSW, amid a fierce bushfire season that started weeks before summer began.

Catastrophic conditions – the worst possible fire weather – were declared during a heatwave in November and almost 600 schools were closed in eastern parts of the state. Six people have died, hundreds of homes have been destroyed.

Enormous fires burn across NSW into December and millions of people in cities and towns have been breathing smoky, polluted air for weeks.

The conditions are playing out just as fire and weather experts feared.

Earlier this year, 23 former fire and emergency chiefs from around Australia called for stronger action on climate change, predicting longer fire seasons and more frequent catastrophic fire conditions.

In late October, deputy state coroner Carmel Forbes handed down her findings into a fire near Dunedoo, east of Dubbo, which burnt through 55,000 hectares, destroyed 35 homes, and killed thousands of animals in February 2017.

The inquiry was requested by the RFS to help people understand the incredible danger posed by catastrophic conditions, in which no home is designed to withstand the aggressive, uncontrollable fires fanned by extremely hot and dry weather.

The findings described how pyro-convective columns, which can trigger “fire storms”, were once rare but are now more frequent. Such storms were a feature of deadly fires in Victoria in 2009, and the Canberra fires in 2003.

“The climate is changing and we are getting more extreme fire behaviour as a result as the atmosphere is hotter and more unstable,” Dr Simon Heemstra, a fire behaviour expert from the RFS, told the inquiry.

The coroner also heard from farmers about what they felt was poor communication from the RFS, poor decisions, lack of resources and their sense of “isolation” as they stared down walls of fire.

The group of former emergency chiefs has called for a parliamentary inquiry into whether emergency services including the RFS – made up of 70,000 volunteers and about 1,000 paid staff – are adequately resourced to respond to the growing threat.

Ken Thompson, a former deputy commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and representative of the Australian Firefighters Climate Alliance, says Australia is seeing longer fire seasons, which overlap with those in the northern hemisphere.

“I don’t think our firefighting system was ever designed for the scale and magnitude of events that we’re seeing at the moment – that goes for all agencies involved in firefighting and land management,” Thompson said.

“The world has changed, the climate has changed, but we’re in an old paradigm – these fires are burning hotter and faster.”

Back in Eglinton, those broader concerns are not the immediate focus for the crew returning from the blaze near Sofala, an old gold-mining village.

Faces and hands black with soot, their eyes drooping with exhaustion, they are frustrated – after seven hours of work they have not been able to control a fire burning in extremely challenging countryside.

Tanya Willey, a deputy captain, wipes ash from the bridge of her nose as she describes her responsibility to protect the brigade.

“There’s always that fear that when you go to things like this that you’re not going to come home, and you try your hardest to come home, and all together.”

Willey describes herself as a former army wife, having spent years moving with her family to wherever her husband was stationed.

He left the army after serving in Afghanistan and they moved to the country to be closer to family.

“We swapped uniforms. He got out of his and I jumped into this one,” she says.

Willey is quick to smile and cracks jokes. She bids farewell to a colleague with a trill: “Bye Benny!”

But the enormity of her work is clear. Willey reflects on what it’s like when her fire pager goes off, and how she scrambles to organise her family and her dogs.

“Have I locked my front door?” she sometimes wonders in the truck.

The youngest of her two daughters hasn’t always been thrilled about her mum fighting fires.

“I guess because daddy was always away in his uniform and she’d always look at me in uniform and get a bit upset because I’d have to go,” Willey says.

“But they’re talking about it at school now, the fires are such a big topic. My daughter has changed her tune a little bit.”

She says it’s worth it.

“We had a lady turn up and she was thanking us for what we do … and she got teary and I got teary and that reminds you why you do what you do.

“There’s no ego in it, you’re just helping.”

Every crew member uses the word “family” to describe their group. They all speak of camaraderie. Many say they found their sense of purpose through the RFS. They say they’ve stuck together through deaths, heartbreak, and difficult scenes like fatal car accidents they cannot bring themselves to describe. They celebrate too, getting together for beers or a barbecue on weekends, and organising a village Christmas party featuring Santa on a 1930s-era fire truck.

Steve Plummer, a mechanic, is one of the last to leave the station.

He is a senior deputy captain, a rank he says he had no ambition for: “I was happy to just turn up, get on a truck, put wet stuff on the red stuff and that would have been good, but it turns out I’ve got a knack for it.”

Plummer grew up in Kurri Kurri, in the Hunter region, and spent his childhood exploring bushland with mates, making slingshots, and climbing in mine shafts.

He always wanted to be a police officer, a dream that only intensified when he had his own minor run-in as a teenager.

“I used my slingshot to break a streetlight. I was 16 and [the police] scared the beejeebies out of me.

“I never got charged or anything, but they took me around the block a few times and took me to the station.

“That was enough to scare me off doing anything like that. It could have gone the other way. I could have been on the other side of the ledger.”

Related: 'Like a giant ball of fire. The biggest flames I have ever seen'

Plummer says he was diverted from policing when he took up his trade.

But he’s now getting what he hoped for – a sense of service mixed with adventure – when he pulls on his yellow and navy RFS uniform.

“These guys, you’re on the frontline with them, and they understand how you feel and we all lean on each other.

“If one’s feeling down, the others will pick them up.”

As night falls the doors are pulled shut and the trucks sit ready to go for whatever the morning brings.