It’s December and Australia is on fire. Six people are dead and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Animals have been heard screaming in pain. Two young CFA volunteers, Ryan Brindley and James Gluskie, have been working to fight these fires.
This story contains distressing content. If these subjects raise any concerns for you, please contact the relevant support services listed here.
Ryan and James are both 20, and have been volunteering with the Country Fire Authority (CFA) since they were 11 years old, moving up the ranks from the juniors program. We asked them what it’s been like on the frontline of Australia’s worst and earliest bushfires. These are their stories.
Tell me about your week fighting fires in NSW?
Ryan: My strike team was asked to go to a place called North Rothbury. The information was that there was property under threat. They needed help really quickly. When we got there it was fire on one side, the road in the middle and houses on the other side. We went straight into active protection, which is about protecting property…working to save sheds, and blacking out, which is putting out hot spots so when the wind picks up it doesn’t send embers everywhere. As we were driving through town we noticed a column of black smoke coming up behind one of the properties so we pulled over. A shed was on fire. That fire came out of nowhere.
Then we went to Glenrae. We were going to do a 20km back burn, to stop the existing fire coming any further. We got out to where we were supposed to be working, and we saw smoke was coming up more than what it was previously. It got darker, the wind picked up. We were unsure about how to proceed. It was so dry. Within five minutes we were ordered to get back in the truck, spun it around, put the lights and sirens on and got out of there. The fire was coming for us…We found a house down a long driveway. We sat out there. We worked on the edge of the fire while the helicopters worked on the head of it. Eventually we headed back up to the main road.
Have you seen anything like this before?
James: In terms of bushfires, it’s the biggest one I’ve ever worked on. I’ve had some big structure fires but it’s the biggest bush and grass fire for me.
What are the stories you’ve heard?
Ryan: A lot of the residents in Glenrae and Grafton, they’re doing it tough. Some people have been evacuated three times. The uncertainty is hard. It’s a lot of stress. There are residents who have mixed emotions. There’s anger, sadness, confusion…there was a man who had his bee farm destroyed by smoke. He wasn’t very happy. But it’s also so dry in these areas. None of the farmers have any water. As firefighters, water is huge. We do a thing called drafting, where we can suck water out of a dam if needed. We’ve been getting stories from the Rural Fire Service (RFA) that farmers have threatened them to not take their water. It’s their livelihoods. Without the water, they’ve got nothing. We also spoke to a farmer who was coming to terms with having to kill his cattle. He couldn’t sell them. People are doing it tough.
James: There was one house we were at a couple of times…the farmers were panicked. The fire was headed right towards them. We were working together to get the property safe. And even when we have to leave…this farmer was so thankful. The fire ended up switching directions, but he was so grateful. We gave him our phone number. He opened his home to us. If we needed it he was there for us. There’s been a lot of drought recently, but he was happy for us to take water from his dam. Even though people are going through a really hard time, they were still willing to open their homes and shops to look after us. And in return we looked after them.
What are the harder parts of the job?
James: For me, someone who’s still fresh in the job…there was a lot of animals that didn’t make it, whether through fire or drought. I won’t go into it, as it’s quite graphic, but the number of animals who perished or were badly injured…I think that will stick with me. It sucks.
My first ever strike team was a couple of years ago; I was 17 at the time. There was a whole bunch of perished cows. And that really got to me. I had to get help for that because it was not doing me any favours. They taught me strategies to help me work with that. Now I’m seeing even more perished animals, but I’ve been able to use the strategies when I first got into strife to deal with it, so to speak.
What is the role of climate change in these fires?
James: This is obviously my opinion; I don’t speak for the rest of the CFA, but personally…there’s something going on. Climate change is a present force and it’s having an impact on all these fires. Is it 100% the reason why? I don’t know, but it’s definitely playing a role in why we’re seeing fires earlier in the year, floods at different times…it is a force.
Generally, what’s the feeling among the volunteers you work with?
Ryan: There’s a huge feeling of exhaustion. Those guys up there have been working on it for far too long. For us at the CFA, you have to be optimistic, but we also have to prepare for the worst. But it’s really neither optimism nor exhaustion exclusively, it’s something in between. The message from us about warnings and protection has been the same for years. And a lot of people ignore the warnings. Sadly we can’t control that.
What have you learned?
Ryan: I feel like people have seen what we do and they appreciate it. That’s why a lot of us do it. To give back. The appreciation from complete strangers is a total bonus.
What would you like young people to know about fire preparedness?
James: Where to start! Have a fire plan. Have a plan for your pets, where you’re going to go on hot days, who will you contact, what and where are the personal belongings that mean a lot to you, how do you prepare your house, do you cut your grass? There’s so much in terms of personal preparedness that everyone would benefit from.
Even if you’re not in the service, you can always learn more about how to prepare yourself. Cleaning your gutters, engraving your phone number in your horse’s hooves, booking spots at a kennel…there is loads out there.
Watch the Victorian Government’s Plan & Prepare – How Well Do You Know Fire campaign
Feature image: James Gluskie