What It's Like To Be Inside A Raging Bushfire, Risking Your Life To Fight It
It’s a no-brainer that as firefighters, we are going to see, attend and fight fires.
But after seven years in the job -- attending hundreds of different incidents from house fires, rescues, hazmats, accidents and previous bushfires -- there was nothing that could prepare my brain for the images, situations and people we would be dealing with this bushfire season.
A house fire is intense. You arrive and it’s all systems go from the minute the bells go off in the station to the moment you are dragging the hose through a doorway to contain the fire.
It’s hot, smoke-filled and visibility is low or non-existent. Communications can be difficult above the popping and cracking of the fire and structure, but you search for casualties and the seat of the fire and you proceed to attack it.
When it’s done, you’re sweaty, tired and so incredibly thirsty. You ‘make-up’ all the gear and get the trucks back online as quickly as possible, ready for the next call.
With a bushfire, it’s different.
There is an intensity, a palpable tension in the air and the safety briefings are, quite honestly, intimidating. Our briefings are presented by highly experienced and respected fellow firies who, with candour and bluntness, point out the realities of what we will face. It's frightening.
Treacherous fire conditions, unpredictable wind changes, expected wind gusts, ambient temperatures, key predicted times for weather shifts and restricted access to a water supply are all key features that we get briefed on.
And then, with that, we meet (often for the first time) the crew who will be responsible for our lives for the next 18 hours and get tasked to a location as part of a 17-person Strike Team.
You are sent as a convoy to an area under threat -- there is no fire yet and you set up in a defendable location, making sure there are multiple ways out and you’re not putting yourself where you could be trapped or overrun.
A fire truck is one of the most unique environments on earth. Driving towards towering plumes of pulsing black smoke, through roads with fire burning either side of you, the crew talks about tactics and then the conversation invariably turns to family, pre-firefighter life and the standard run through of firies you may know in common. We talk a lot, about everything.
The benign conversations take the anxiety out of the situation you are driving into, but you can see the game face is there, lurking just below the joviality and ready to be turned on at any point.
You reach your location and set up. As the fire gets closer, the smoke and wind start to change. The air around you gets heavy and an eerie yellow tint surrounds you. Your heart beats that little bit quicker because this is it.
While you are begging residents to leave so you don’t have to worry about them (if it isn’t already too late to do so), you are also deliberately taking a position that you intend to hold for the duration.
Right before the front hits you, it goes still and quiet. Silence with fires is a bad sign.
In some cases, the smoke clears entirely and then you feel a warm breeze start to hit your legs.
The smoke doesn’t settle in this time, it races above you and the colour sets off some natural instinct in you that makes your brain tell you ‘you are in the wrong spot!’.
A deep, dull roar sounds ahead of you and, standing your ground with a hose line, you search between the shrubs, trees and bush for the first glimpse of flame.
The visibility doesn’t last long. Swirling gusts of super-heated air hit you and it feels as though the roar engulfs you. You can’t see the tip of the hose in front of you and it’s like you are the only thing within this small area of sight. Embers fly all around, and surround you. Through the complete darkness, you can see the red and orange glow.
For a moment in time, with zero visibility and fire raining down on you, you wonder how on earth you will be able to protect anything in these conditions. You can’t see a structure, much less pick a spot fire out from what feels like a raging inferno surrounding you.
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But despite all of this... know that I will fight for your house like I would fight for my own.
The first Strike Team I was a part of for these fires was on the NSW South Coast at Lake Tabourie, and we did save the properties. We stood our ground and fought our little hearts out.
But the images of mass ecological devastation, the complete silence -- devoid of a bird calling or the leaves rustling; the naked, charred remains of luscious bushland -- will remain etched in my mind forever.
The people we meet, the communities that accept us into their world and would give us their last bottle of water when they have lost everything have had a profound impact on me, and I have never been more proud and humbled to wear this uniform.
People say it’s a job. It’s not. It is so much more than that.