Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Meet the heroic Aussie female firefighters risking their lives to battle the horrific bushfires

In the midst of an unprecedented bushfire season, possibly the worst Australian has ever seen, Susan Chenery pays tribute to the women firefighters who risk their lives to keep us safe.
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The noise. That’s what you don’t get in all the footage and photos. The terrible, terrible noise of a big bushfire.

The malignant sound of the wind as the fire sucks in the oxygen it needs to grow.

The hissing and popping of eucalyptus trees, the explosions as they release their gasses.

Fires make their own weather pattern, creating their own wind, lightening, black hail.

“The noise,” says Liane Henderson, volunteer firefighter of 20 years standing, “is like jet planes.”

If we are lucky, we will never know what it is like inside an uncontained fire.

Liane does, and so do her firefighting colleagues. It is dark, like an eclipse.

“It can get very scary because you can get disoriented. It is another world when you are out there, it really is.”

An unpredictable fast-moving force of destruction, engulfing everything in its path.

“I look at it as this beast that I’ve got to stop,” says Liane, Acting Inspector for Rural Fire Service, Queensland.

“It is us against that, but every fire is different. These things have minds of their own.”

This is a season of fire. Our country is burning up. The fires that have raged across the eastern seaboard in these past months have been unprecedented – the sheer scale of them, coming so early in the driest spring ever recorded, with a ferocity that has never been seen before.

At the time of publication, more than 1000 homes, six lives and over two million hectares have been lost in mega-fires that are breaking all records months before the start of the traditional fire season.

Fire, reported The Guardian, has never or rarely devoured rainforests, wet eucalypt forests, dried-out swamps, ancient forests in Tasmania that have not burned for 1000 years, but they have all burned this spring and summer. And as the fires escalate, we are in uncharted territory.

Vivien, Mikaela, Peta and Lilly are Aussie heroes still on the fire front in NSW.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

“Fire knows no boundaries, it doesn’t discriminate,” says Vivien Thompson. A rural liaison officer who has been fighting fires for three decades. On 18 January 2003 she faced the kind of firestorm she thought she would never see again.

“The hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you think something is going to happen. This roar is coming like a massive freight train, this massive intensity. In a split second it hit us and threw us off our feet, a car ignited in front of us. Ten minutes later we heard it coming back.”

Liane works as Acting Inspector for the Queensland Rural Fire Service, and has also racked up 20 years of volunteer service.

(Credit: Photo supplied.)

But having been at the fires near Glen Innes this last November, where a wall of flames burned with such intensity that there was only one house left, she says things are happening now that “we really can’t explain.

“It was a wild ride. I saw some fire behaviour going on down there which just didn’t fit the mould of what should happen. The worst case scenario is becoming more normal.

“We were experiencing high fire intensity in the middle of the night, which is usually the time we back burn. Fires were skimming along the tree tops where there was no surface fire. It was almost like the atmosphere was on fire.”

Liane sleeps with her phone – lives with the dread, the tension of being always ready to run towards danger. The call can come at any time. The surge of adrenaline, the urgency.

The 2019-2020 bushfires are considered to be the worst in Australia’s history, with unprecedented acreage and wildlife going up in smoke.

(Credit: Photo supplied.)

“You might be swimming in your pool and get a fire call,” says Peta Bull, a volunteer of seven years at Tamborine Mountain in QLD.

“You turn up in whatever you’re wearing – it might be your bikini or you are not wearing shoes. I knew a firefighter who used to have designer clothes from her work under her uniform.”

Driving into a fire, they are assessing it – seeing what is in the line of the fire – homes, farms, crops that need to be saved.

“Totally concentrating,” says Liane, “and making sure that we understand where people are and how we can get them out.”

“You’ll see a smoke plume,” says Peta, “and the colour and thickness of it can tell you how intense it is. You have to look at what is burning, the wind, the head of the fire. You shouldn’t get in front of the head. They call it ‘the dead man zone’ for a reason.”

Firefighters see what we don’t.

“You’ll never look the same way at the landscape after talking to me,” warns Peta, who works as a nurse when not volunteering at a fire ground.

What we see as nondescript undergrowth, they see as fuel for a fire.

“It has ruined it for me. I can’t go for a drive without thinking, Oh God, look at the fuel load in there. You’re constantly looking around.”

Right now, we have perfect conditions for catastrophe.

“There is no humidity, so there’s no moisture anywhere,” says Peta. “Fires are just starting from a spark, from anything.”

“Where you probably had the chance before of containing a fire, we are losing that chance because it’s so damn dry. We’re not getting the rain that we need – we’re getting heat – and the wind is drying everything up.”

WATCH BELOW: Prince Charles’ emotional message to Australia regarding the bushfires. Story continues after video.

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It is the wind that you have to watch with a fire. Firefighters are constantly looking behind, above, looking for exits, assessing.

“You do a 360-degree size-up,” says Liane.

“It becomes normal to you. I do that everywhere I go now. It’s called situational awareness.” They’re watching out for the falling branches of gum trees and for ember attacks that can travel four to 12 kilometres before a fire front.

“There are so many dangers,” says Peta.

“Snakes, spiders, other animals. We could be catching horses, cows, koalas. You might be down a cliff and the truck might be up on top and you have to pull yourself up with the hoses…I had a spider crawl up my pants once. I had to drop them in front of everyone.”

Peta has been caught when the wind has changed and a fire has turned and come straight at her.

“You just hope you’re the one holding the hose because you can at least turn it on and spray, and turn it around and spray yourself. I’ve had to do that.”

Being scared, says Vivien, is essential for survival.

“You’re not brave unless you’re scared. But it is managed fear, managed risk.

“If I go to a fire ground and don’t have that sense of being scared, it means I’ve stopped looking, reviewing and questioning, and I am putting myself in danger. That is when I stop doing this.”

Last November, as catastrophic fire warnings were declared, Peta was on duty at Moogerah Dam in southern QLD, defending people’s homes.

“It can be really intense,” she admits. “Some of us had been on the fire ground for 18 and 20 hours.”

Those houses were, she says “easy to defend because the people had done everything right to prevent bushfire.

“That was an easy save. But unfortunately sometimes you can’t defend the house. And then there is guilt – a lot of guilt. What if I had done this differently? What if I hadn’t had that afternoon nap? I would have been up and dressed and ready to go when I got that call.”

Vivien has been fighting fires for three decades.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

Mikaela Ryan, an 18-year-old university student, is a second generation firefighter. She has been volunteering for the Hawkesbury Rural Fire Brigade since she was 13 years old.

Until she was 16 and old enough to pass her qualifications, she would go out as a scribe – doing mapping, logistics, radio communications, organising crews – for her father, who is a group officer.

In November, Mikaela was at the Gospers Mountain fire north-west of Sydney on a catastrophic fire danger day when she experienced a “burnover” – when a fire quite literally burns over the top of a crew.

“We were up at Putty Road, which the fire was aiming to cross, and we wanted to try and stop it there,” she begins.

The aviation unit advised that the fire front was “fast approaching and the fire behaviour had intensified.”

Here, fire crews wait at a property along Putty Road, north of Sydney, as the fire front approaches on November 15, 2019.

(Credit: Getty Images)

The crew pulled into an area of open grass paddocks with some dwellings.

“We could hear it roaring up the gully,” she says. “It had a north-westerly, which is a hot wind, and that wind was pushing very, very fast.”

“When the fire front approached we had 120-kilometre per hour wind gusts, sheet metal flying off buildings. Then it hit us and we had about 600-metre flame heights.”

With eight or nine units pulled in there, “our only fire protection was other vehicles around us. I was with three very experienced group officers who said it was the most erratic fire behaviour they had ever seen.”

Mikaela remained calm, she says “because the training kicked in”. Something that is echoed by all the women interviewed by The Weekly.

“We all feel very supported and able to get through it together.”

Fighting fires requires organisation and precision. Lilly Stepanovich, who became Captain of St Albans RFS brigade last May, was also at the Gospers Mountain fire, which as we go to press is still burning.

The brigade’s ability to save lives and property there has been, she says, in part a result of strategic planning.

“Prior to the fires,” she says, “we had worked with the community, collating information, making sure people knew what we were doing…It was like a well-oiled machine. Everybody knew what they had to do and we got the job done.”

Fighting fires also requires operating at an intensity few people will experience in their lifetime. It is like going to war – danger, adrenaline, noise, exhaustion. While the aviation crews are working from the air, the firefighters are on the ground and up close.

No one gets away from a fire unaffected, unchanged. Even the best trained firefighter is exposed to trauma on shifts that can extend through days and nights.

Peta works as a nurse when not volunteering at a fire ground. She says their ability to save a home can come down to whether the owners have properly prepared their property to reduce the risk.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

After a big deployment, Liane says, “my husband tells me I go very quiet, don’t speak much, get very teary. I generally sleep for a couple of days. It is adrenaline that keeps you going on a 12 or 14-hour shift. Then it is coming off the adrenaline. I’m not a social butterfly anymore. I am a lot quieter. It does change you. You become more aware of the world you are living in and have more empathy for people.”

And there is sadness too, for what has been lost.

“Your heart goes out to people who have lost homes and livestock,” she adds. “And to lose native animals and bushland – it upsets us. We care about our communities.”

“Whilst in operational mode, you can’t lose it, but out of operational mode, we do. You can’t forget about it…And you get filthy dirty, it takes days to get the smell out of your hair and your eyes can be swollen for days from the smoke.”

WATCH BELOW: The scale and ferocity of these bushfires has made news headlines around the world. Story continues after video.

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Firefighters know what they are really made of.

“You are made of trust and your mates,” says Peta. “If there wasn’t teamwork, we would have 10,000 dead firefighters. We are a family.”

Vivien’s partner’s farm was burned in the 2003 Canberra fires, so she knows how it feels to lose your home, your income, your animals. “Their trauma is so raw.”

As a liaison officer, she reaches out to people whose lives have been devastated by fire.

“I provide them with the information they need to start the very long, involved, intense recovery period. People have been looking after their animals closely to get them through the drought, and then to have a fire come through is incredibly hard to come to terms with…You can see the stress and trauma – they are basically crying in your arms.”

At the time of writing, these women know that the risk of fire is going to get worse, much worse, as the summer progresses. The fire season used to last for a couple of months in predictable locations.

Now their crews are on active duty for most of the year. Many of the people fighting these fires are volunteers who have dropped everything to work around the clock, away from their families and regular workplaces.

“Volunteers down tools and they come from everywhere,” says Liane.

In this new red-hot world, our fireys often don’t have time to recover from one fire before they’re called to the next one, a situation that is risky for mental health. And they do it for no material reward – just the desire to keep our land and our communities safe.

At just 18, Mikaela is a second-generation firefighter who began volunteering five years ago. At the Gospers Mountain fire in November 2019, she experienced flames reaching 600 metres high. That fire continues to burn at the time of this article’s publication.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

Vivien is calling for more women to volunteer.

“Women do things slightly differently,” she says. “When I’m running a fire ground, I have a mental picture in my head of who is where, what’s happening, what they are doing. To be honest, one benefit we women have is that we are really good multi-taskers.”

Dr Noreen Krusel, Director of Research Utilisation for the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), says: “We do encourage more women to apply to join the services and we are looking for broad skills and attributes.”

“There is a traditional view that the person holding the hose needs to be this big brawny stereotypical male. There is a lot more that people need to do – they need to work with communities, make decisions – and lots of people can do that. The agencies are always looking to recruit the best people.”

Australia’s already at risk koala populations have been devastated by these bushfires, in which over half a billion animals have already perished. WIRES wildlife rescue is one organisation working to save and nurse surviving animals.

(Credit: Photo supplied.)

Vivien is also calling for bi-partisan action on climate change. Although no individual fire can be attributed to climate change alone, scientists have made it clear that these fires, along with the extremes of temperature and drought that have contributed to them, are in line with climate change predictions.

“For everyone who understands climate change – from our youth to our firefighters to our farmers – the solutions are blindingly obvious,” Vivien wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

“The catastrophic impacts of climate change are right on our doorstep. We need our policymakers to take urgent action.”

Last April, knowing what was to come, 23 retired fire chiefs requested a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Bob Conroy, former fire manager of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, said: “The fires are impacting on areas that haven’t known fires for millennia.”

Greg Mullins, the former chief of NSW Fire and Rescue told The Guardian that the bushfire crisis was underlaid by climate emergency.

“Climate change has supercharged the bushfire problem. And on 12 November, for the first time ever, Sydney experienced catastrophic fire danger. Fires are literally off the scale on this warming planet.”

The chiefs were asking for desperately needed equipment and resources for fire fighters and for action on climate change.

In December they finally met with government – not with the Prime Minister but with Energy Minister Angus Taylor and minister for drought David Littleproud.

Greg Mullins asked them to “reach out across the boundaries of politics” because the current response is “simply not enough”.

Lilly, who captains the St Albans RFS brigade, says their ability to save lives and property is in part due to strategic planning ahead of the fire season.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

Vivien echoes those demands and reminds The Weekly‘s readers that, whether government heeds the call or not, there is much we can all do to support our local fierys – we can make their jobs easier by maintaining our properties, making a fire plan and sticking to it.

We can donate or volunteer with our local brigade. And we can tell our parliamentarians that we expect less political point-scoring and more strong, bi-partisan action when our lives and our land are at stake.

In the meantime, Vivien promises that, in spite of the swollen eyes, singed hair, coming home from shifts smelly, dirty, exhausted and sometimes heartbroken: “We are all going to be back out there the next day because this is something we just inherently do, as Australians.”

To learn more, contact your local brigade or visit these websites: NSW RFS, Queensland Rural Fire Service, ACT Emergency Services, Victoria Country Fire Authority, SA Country Fire Service, and Tasmanian Fire Service. You can also visit Women and Firefighting Australasia, and Vivien Thomson’s book, Ashes of the Firefighters, is available here.

Read more about our courageous firefighters and their battles in the January issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

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