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Australia is on fire and the volunteers on the front line are sounding an alarm. Lacking vital resources, they are exhausted and quickly draining their annual leave. And the season has no end in sight. By Rick Morton.

The long, hot summer

Firefighters tackle a fire in Braidwood, New South Wales.
Credit: Sean Davey

In the middle of a valley in the Tallaganda bushland, Braidwood rural fire service volunteer Russell Buzby stood watching a fire move slowly downhill.

It was late November, not a particularly difficult day, so the plan was to let the fire creep to a dry creek bed where crews would extinguish it before the blaze could cross the valley and begin moving uphill; fires double in speed for every 10 degrees of slope.

“Instead,” says Buzby, “this fire tornado developed, and we watched from our vantage point as it picked embers up, you know, 100 metres into the air and … just spat them out all over the valley.”

Buzby turned to see fires spotting the hill behind him.

“I looked at my brigade captain, who’s been doing this for decades, and I could see in his eyes that this was not something we could fight.”

Fire tornadoes are not unusual, but what surprised Buzby and the crew was that this one was conjured “not in the heart of a big fire that is absolutely raging but in a fire that was moving gently downhill on a relatively good day”.

This week, The Saturday Paper spoke with dozens of volunteer firefighters, and the community members helping to feed them and man pumping stations. At every turn, they described conditions that are more ferocious, sustained and unpredictable than any season in living memory. The toll on these men and women – physically, financially and psychologically – is beginning to bite. And while these seasons almost always leave those on the front lines depleted and exhausted, this one has no end in sight.

“It is hard for everyone and I’m not just talking about our shed. Every shed in New South Wales, everyone is pushed to the limit,” says Shipley rural fire brigade deputy captain Ross Alderson.

“You can only do so many days and the fatigue management kicks in. What’s the temperature, 38 degrees today? You go on the fire line and it’s 46 degrees, 48 degrees. You physically run out of energy.”

That’s on a good day. And this fire season, good days are increasingly rare.

On September 6, south-east Queensland and northern NSW broke records for the level of fire danger on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index, registering catastrophic and extreme ratings for the first time in September.

On November 8, fire danger index records were broken on the NSW mid-north coast where hundreds of homes were lost in blazes. Then, just four days later, Sydney registered catastrophic fire conditions for the first time ever.

On Thursday this week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a second state of emergency that will last for seven days, with a dramatic heatwave pushing into the region and stirring up bushland infernos once again. Six lives have already been lost, and 800 homes destroyed.

Some fires, such as the Gospers Mountain blaze in Wollemi National Park, haven’t been under control for months.

Ryan Hobson, a volunteer from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church who’s been helping feed firefighters near Lithgow, says crews have been hit hard.

“Some of them are still working their day jobs but some of them have just given up, severely eating their annual leave up. I spoke to one guy and he has been working one day on, one day off since Gospers Mountain went up,” Hobson says.

His nephew, Darcy Hobson, jumps in: “I spoke to one guy and he said he can’t remember the last time he went to work.”

Volunteers are taking sick leave or using their own annual leave from their day jobs, sometimes with grave consequences, just to be on the front line.

Megalong Valley rural fire service volunteer Malcolm Scott, 69, is a contract worker who hasn’t been paid for almost two weeks now. He has a broken-down fire truck and a home in the path of three major fires, and there is nothing his crew can do to stop them.

“It is just very scary; it is unstoppable,” he says. “In the past, we always could round a fire up and stop it. It just doesn’t appear that we can now.”

Scott says crews would “mop up” back-burns or fire lines in previous fire seasons by extinguishing every last ember for 30 metres. Now, they are working longer and more strenuously to ensure the entire burn is blacked out.

“We [want to be certain] that it has absolutely no fire on it because we are just so frightened of it,” he says.

On Wednesday, a back-burn to remove fuel between the fire front and homes had to be aborted, Scott says: “It got away from us.”

But hazardous burns have been a problem for months, long before summer began.

In the depths of winter, Catherine Hill brigade volunteer Andrew MacDonald and his crew had to abandon some hazard-reduction burns entirely.

“It is very, very unusual for us to have to do that in winter,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

But everything was tinder, and the fire season hadn’t even started.

In September, MacDonald was deployed to the Gold Coast hinterland, where fires destroyed the historic Binna Burra Lodge in the lush rainforest of Lamington National Park.

There, and in northern NSW, the sight of burning rainforest was a chilling omen for fire crews.

“In northern NSW it has always been a major part of our strategy to stop fires at these natural locations,” says MacDonald.

“We are finding this year that simply does not work. It’s why we haven’t been able to control any of these fires.”

 

On December 10, Scott Morrison was asked how long volunteer firefighters could continue working without pay. He ignored the premise of the question and went instead to the character of the volunteers. “The fact is,” he said, “these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities.” He said it was a fight to make them take breaks. “In many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.”

The comments left firefighters, who are mostly volunteers, incredulous.

“The things he says, it makes people angry,” says Ross Alderson. “Even if he was in Hawaii, what is he going to do: sign a billion-dollar cheque so we can buy the equipment we need? Until that happens, he means nothing to me.”

One firefighter from Queensland, currently contracted to assist aerial operations in Tasmania, told The Saturday Paper that pay is always a concern, but the issue is more fundamental than that – it’s about fatigue.

“The longer the seasons go the more burnout occurs … Family life goes out the window, so there is a cost to partners and children. It’s only ‘fun’ for the first couple of fire calls – and then it starts to drag,” he says.

He has spent the week flying over the east of Tasmania, an area usually lush and green. From the air, he says, it could be Queensland: “It’s brown and dry, and horribly primed.”

He counts off the lengthening seasons, the arithmetic of how much is going to be asked of volunteers. Many are already out of leave. He says Tasmania’s fire season is “normally” January to March, but this time it started in October. “Western Australia is planning for an eight- to nine-month season. Queensland has extended theirs to late January 2020, for a season that is meant to have already finished.”

Fire chiefs expect the flames to stretch into April, possibly May. Come the new year, according to Victoria’s former emergency management commissioner, Craig Lapsley, the entire nation may well be alight.

“We’ve got fires in multiple states now, and potentially we’ll have fires in all states and territories in the end of December, January and February, which is a first for Australia,” he told journalists on Tuesday. “That is a turning point. That’s telling us it is different.”

Greg Mullins, a former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner, says the fire edge – the length of the front that crews have to battle – is now more than 11,000 kilometres in NSW, about the distance from Sydney to Afghanistan.

“More country has been burned and three times more homes lost than our worst previous fire season in history,” he says. “And the fires are still burning.”

On Thursday, five firefighters were surrounded by walls of flame near Bargo. Three were seriously burned.

The Queensland volunteer puts it like this: “Conservatives have a horrible habit of trading on people’s empathy and community spirit, defunding organisations and reducing budgets on the premise that people will still turn up. God help the PM if firefighters start dying on the fireground.”

Late on Thursday night two volunteer firefighters from the Horsley Park brigade died when their truck rolled over while they were deployed to battle major bushfires in NSW. Deputy captain Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, are both fathers of young children. On Friday, December 20, Scott Morrison released a statement expressing deep regret for “any offence caused” by the timing of his own annual leave and said, in the wake of this tragedy, he would be returning to Australia as soon as possible.

 

The catastrophic conditions that led to Victoria’s Black Saturday in 2009 came in February. Ash Wednesday in 1983, too. In 1994, a great inferno on the edges of Sydney claimed four lives and 225 homes. This disaster struck in January, as did the Canberra bushfires of 2003.

In fact, to find any record of a major bushfire catastrophe that struck in November, one needs to go back to 1968.

Since 2006, however, two events began in September, two in October and four in November.

One of those recent fires broke out in 2013 in the Blue Mountains in mid-October. Almost 200 homes were destroyed, and it marked one of the most significant events in local history – at least before this fire season. Hanging in the new shed at the Shipley rural fire brigade in the Blue Mountains town of Blackheath is a reminder of the human effort that went into saving lives and property during that disaster: “Over 5742 hot meals served, 47 crews sent to the fireground, over 3000 man hours volunteered.”

When asked how this season’s effort compares, so far, Ross Alderson doesn’t pause. “We’ve tripled it,” he says. “Or more.”

University of Canberra climate scientist Sophie Lewis, a lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report, says the fire danger rating trend in Australia has been on the rise for half a century.

“This isn’t just about where we choose to live. There is something in the climatology that has changed; it’s a very clear trend,” she says.

She notes, with the wry sense of humour necessary for those who study climate change, that her own SES bushfire training has been cancelled twice this month because of bushfires.

What makes this year’s bushfire season such an aberration is that it has not coincided with an El Niño weather pattern – as happened in 2009, 2003 and 1994.

Alderson says anyone who has fought a fire knows Australia’s weather patterns are changing. And it is against this backdrop that volunteers begin to wonder whether the old way of doing things can last. Do they have enough men and women, not just now but for the months ahead?

It’s a game of chance – 50:50, by Alderson’s reckoning. “Toss a coin – what’s it going to land on? It’s as simple as that.”

 

With things at breaking point, sources tell The Saturday Paper that a coalition of the nation’s key unions is preparing to launch a national campaign to pressure some of the country’s biggest companies into giving volunteers paid leave during fire emergencies.

Commonwealth and state public servants generally receive unlimited paid leave, but it is “extremely rare” in the private sector. Obvious targets include supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, both of which have big footprints in regional Australia.

“Unions are starting to get members asking if there is any way they can get paid, because they are suffering,” says one source involved with the campaign, which may launch before Christmas.

“Our old system is predicated on the fact that you might go and fight a fire for a couple of days and then it’s out and you’re back at work. That is no longer the case.”

Paying Australia’s regional firefighters – whether it involves reimbursing volunteers or establishing a national professional bushfire-fighting force that works seasonally, similar to arrangements in the US state of California – remains one of the biggest issues raised this year. In NSW, the volunteer force is becoming older, with fewer young recruits as country towns thin and urban fringes expand.

“The way we’re dealing with fires now has been terrific, it has worked for many years. It is now unsustainable,” says Naomi Brown, former chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council.

“The need for volunteers 24 hours a day, months on end, is going to make life very, very difficult. There is no doubt we need a national look at this; we need a serious plan.”

More funding is needed for equipment, too.

Fire trucks that should have been replaced years ago are being held together with “tape and hope” in some cases. But these trucks cost up to $600,000 to replace, according to one private-sector employee who works with fire agencies and volunteers on crisis mapping. Upgrading the entire fleet would require hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another symptom of funding shortfalls: Australia’s lack of aerial firefighting craft.

“One of the problems for resourcing firefighters at the moment is we lease large aircraft from the USA,” says Greg Mullins. “Other countries are after them, like Chile … We have to get in early to get enough of them.”

The NSW government owns one Boeing 737 air tanker, which costs about $7 million and another $20 million over a decade for maintenance and personnel. The rest of the national fleet, including the thundering Erickson Skycrane helicopters – “Elvis” and co – are leased from the US and shared between the states.

On Sunday night, when fire crews thought conditions would be manageable, NSW’s 737 tanker was sent to Perth to help fight fires there. While the aircraft was interstate, a back-burn operation in the Blue Mountains swept out of control and destroyed homes near Bilpin.

“[These aircraft] give firefighters an edge on the worst days. But once we have every state alight, which is likely this year, there’s going to be a lot of competition for those scarce resources,” says Mullins.

Victoria is yet to enter its most dangerous period. While it waits, five crews from Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade have been sent to fight fires in Sydney, as Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters – the professionals – battle bush blazes alongside volunteers.

Five trucks also came to help a fortnight ago on the Green Wattle Creek fire. Should Victoria go up in flames, as predicted, these arrangements will be reciprocated by sending already exhausted NSW crews south.

Last week, Sophie Lewis met up with a friend in Canberra, a volunteer firefighter recently returned from a deployment in NSW, so their children could have a play date.

“He was exhausted and coughing and, without exaggeration, he barely had the energy to pick up his kid,” she says. “You know, he’s been fighting fires since spring.”

For him, and many other volunteers across the country, it is just the beginning of a long, hot summer. So, what is this future for which we are meant to prepare?

“The problem is we don’t know where all this is going to take us,” says Lewis.

“We do a good job of looking at the most catastrophic event in history and learning from that, but we don’t have an understanding of what that event is in 2030 or 2050. We are scrambling to catch up as it is.

“So, the question now is, what is worse than catastrophic?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "The long, hot summer".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.