What It's Like To Be Married To A Firefighter During This Bushfire Crisis
The day before New Year’s Eve I am sitting at the kitchen table with my children.
We are doing a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, one we have been working on for days during this current heat wave. The distraction is two-fold for me; both from the irrepressible heat, and that my husband is once again gone, fighting fires in catastrophic conditions.
So far that day there have been five fires reported in our area; grass fires caused by dry lightning strikes. The closest fire is 28 kilometres away from our farm so there is no imminent danger to us; still, I am unnerved as temperatures reach above 40 degrees and gale force winds blow from the north -- the direction of fires -- straight toward us, gusting over 50 kmph.
Later that day my husband arrives home, his face black with soot, clothes still damp with sweat. Most of the fires are contained, albeit one which we later learn burns over 26,000 hectares of farmland, including three homes and thousands of livestock. Some of the CFS crew from our area have stayed to continue fighting that fire, while others have returned back to this area in preparation for the next storm front to arrive.
He no sooner washes up and steps inside the kitchen when his pager sounds. There are more fires, and more crew needed. They are calling brigades from over 100 kilometres away. My husband, along with others from his crew who carry independent fire units, choose to stay in this area -- with scrubland, vineyard, and pine forest nearby, the threat of dry lightning is too dangerous to not have crew members close on hand. The pager doesn’t stop all afternoon.
Eventually, winds swing around to the west, then south as the cool change hits and temperatures significantly ease. One main fire still burns and will continue to do so for days. But as the rest of the country blazes out of control, we are the lucky ones. This time.
That afternoon I scroll through social media; eerie, dystopian-like images of Mallacoota, Bega, Cobargo, Batemans Bay. Homes lost. Towns lost. Lives lost; men who sought to protect the lives of others. Men who were husbands and fathers.
We always know -- as wives, partners or significant others of firefighters, be it employed or volunteer -- there is risk involved. That every time the pager sounds and we kiss them goodbye as they rush out the door, urgent and brave, they are heading into a life-threatening situation. We know this. Yet cannot allow ourselves to believe our loved ones could be the next statistic. It is a thought we put out of head to preserve our senses in the midst of an emergency; how we stay calm and rational in the face of our own fear.
For twenty-one years, I have lived on this farm in rural South Australia; watched for twenty-one summers as my husband has been called out to fires, some more dangerous than others. Stayed at the farm on my own with four young children as he has gone to fight fires in other places, quietly terrified of being on my own.
Terrified of panicking, and not remembering what to do if a fire front passes through. Terrified there is no one around for miles if I need help. Terrified of being responsible for our farm. Our livestock. Our children. Terrified of staying, or of going. Of making the wrong choice. Of my husband not having a home, or family to come home to. Of my husband not coming home.
Often, he is fighting fires where there is no phone reception and we have no way of contacting one another -- fires fuelled by temperatures in the high 40’s and winds gusting over 100 kmph and dry storms dropping bolts of lightning that start new fires faster than they could ever be put out. Where we lose power, and with that, our water supply. Where hours pass, and I know nothing of his location or safety; nor he of mine.
I can only wait for him to arrive home, and be thankful when he does. Listen as he tells me how close to the fire front they were. How fast it rushed toward them when the wind shifted direction without warning. How thick the smoke, and how hard it was to see. How fierce the heat of the pine trees when the forest caught alight. How loud the roar of flames as his crew took shelter in the truck when the fire burned over them because there was nowhere else to go. He doesn’t tell me if he was scared, or not. I don’t tell him I was. We read each other in the space between the words; some things don’t need to be said.
On New Year’s Eve, we sit with our children and watch the news. Scenes of devastation and loss; a nation on fire. Scenes that will mark history. I grapple with the ambivalence of it all -- gratefulness that my family is home safe; heartache for those whose families are not. Know at any time, this could change. See in a new decade a little more uncertain than the last.