Shane Fitzsimmons Calls His Family In Tears After A Hard Day Fighting Fires
When NSW RFS boss Shane Fitzsimmons finds himself in the darkest of moments, it's his family that keeps him grounded.
For months, Fitzsimmons has been a constant voice of comfort, stability and leadership at the helm of the NSW Rural Fire Service as the state battled what has become the worst bushfire season on record.
But the RFS NSW Commissioner has his own moments of struggle. Appearing on Studio 10 on Monday, Fitzsimmons was visibly emotional as he spoke about the three "wonderful women" in his life who keep him grounded.
"In those darkest of moments... ringing my wife is one of the most important things I do, shedding a few tears here and there, and talking through what is happening," he told the panel.
"My family keeps me very, very grounded. My wife is an absolute rock, and my daughters."
I’m blessed to have three wonderful women in my life at home.
Fitzsimmons met his wife Lisa when he was just a volunteer with the RFS, and Lisa's father was a local fire control officer. Back then, there were no mobile phones -- only radios.
"I remember there were a few challenges, when she would say to her parents, 'I'm never getting involved with anyone in this bloody organisation'!'" Fitzsimmons joked.
"They do remind her about that now."
The RFS is in Fitzsimmons' blood -- he followed in his father's footsteps, joining as a volunteer at 15.
"I've effectively grown up in the organisation, which is why I love it so much," he said.
But one tragedy made him question giving it all away. In June 2000, Fitzsimmons' father George and three other firefighters were killed during a hazard reduction burn in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Three others survived with injuries after being overrun by fire that day.
It's a tragedy that Fitzsimmons said grounds his resolve to defend the RFS record on hazard reduction burning, insisting the strategy is a "complicated" one.
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"Hazard reductions are not without risk, and not without consequences. I am very dismissive of people that say we should just go out there and light up the bush, because it’s a load of rubbish," he told the panel.
"There are very real risks for those who are executing the burning strategy, but there are also implications."
Previously, Fitzsimmons has addressed the organisation's hazard reduction strategies, amid discussion over the state's preparedness for the fire season, insisting the strategy is not a 'panacea' for bushfire risk.
But ultimately, his father's tragic accident strengthened his resolve to stay in the game.
"I did think for a while, that if something like that could happen to my dad with all of those decades of experience, that I've got to give this game away," he said.
"But that thought didn't last long. I'm a big believer in [the fact that] you can have everyone on the sideline pontificating about what should happen, but if you want to see change, you have to be part of the process."
For Fitzsimmons, part of the process means steering clear of the debate over the role of climate change amid Australia's worsening bushfire season.
"I very deliberately don't get involved in the emotional hysteria and I don't think anyone is benefiting from the frenzied debate, from one end of the spectrum to the other," Fitzsimmons said on Monday.
"We need to have sensible, meaningful, factual dialogue in the middle."
The Commissioner said the RFS has been factoring issues around science and climate change in its business cases and planning for decades.
"The science for us talks about longer, hotter fire seasons, and more frequent, more intense fire weather events. That means a shrinking window of opportunity for hazard reduction burning, and overlapping fire seasons between us here and in the northern hemisphere," he said.
"Since I've been Commissioner, we’ve had really good support from government. We’ve got record investment in mitigation programs and teams to help us take advantage of shrinking opportunities, more technology and equipment to help us burn out larger areas in shorter windows of time."
This year, he said the impacts of drought cannot be overstated.
"The only good thing about the drought is there is nothing to burn in far western NSW," he said.
"But when you get to the Great Dividing Range, you’ve got forested country, rainforest ... all sorts of pristine wilderness that are so ridiculously dry that fires are starting so easily and spreading extremely quickly. And that’s what we’re seeing," he said.
According to Fitzsimmons, just under one-quarter of the Great Dividing Range -- nearly 5.5 million hectares -- have been consumed by fire this season.
"It has been a relentless season, there's no doubt about it ... we've seen some of the most damaging, destructive, tragic fires that we've ever experienced in NSW," he said.
"It has been truly horrible."
Amid the devastation, Fitzsimmons said the most difficult -- and indeed most important -- part of his job has been consoling families whose loved ones have died while battling blazes.
"I’ve always believed that when things are going wrong, I think that's when leaders -- no matter what level you are in the organisation -- have to be present and accountable the most," he said.
He acknowledged one photo which touched hearts across the country, when he presented late RFS firefighter Geoffrey Keaton's son Harvey with a bravery award at a memorial last month.
Keaton, 32, was posthumously awarded a commissioner’s commendation for bravery, and for service after his truck rolled while battling the large Green Wattle Creek blaze near Buxton on December 19. He and fellow RFS volunteer, Andrew O'Dwyer, were killed.
Fitzsimmons said the moment with Keaton's son wasn't planned.
"This young fella was right next to us. He was moving around, and sitting there with a dummy in his mouth. It just epitomised the gravity of loss and grief that we were dealing with," he said.
"In some way, I hope those special commendations sit with the family, and with those young ones particularly growing up, knowing their dads were absolute heroes."