COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Australian Women’s Weekly NZ|January 2020
In the midst of an unprecedented bushfire season, Susan Chenery pays tribute to the women firefighters who risk their lives to save others.
Susan Chenery

The noise. That’s what you don’t get in 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 gases. Fires make their own weather, creating their own wind, lightning, black hail. “The noise,” says Liane Henderson, volunteer firefighter of 20 years standing, “is like jet planes.”

If we’re lucky we’ll never know what it’s like inside an uncontained fire. Liane does, and so do her firefighting colleagues. It’s dark, like an eclipse. “It can get very scary because you can get disoriented. It’s 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 I’ve got to stop,” says Liane, Acting Inspector for Rural Fire Service (RFS), Queensland. “It’s us against that, but every fire is different. These things have minds of their own.”

This is a season of fire. Australia 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’s never been seen before. At the time of writing, more than 700 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’ve all burned this spring and summer. And as the fires escalate, Australia is in uncharted territory.

“Fire knows no boundaries, it doesn’t discriminate,” says Vivien Thomson, a rural liaison officer who has been fighting fires for three decades. On January 18, 2003, she faced the kind of firestorm she thought she’d 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 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.”

But having been at the fires near Glen Innes, in northern NSW, this November, where a wall of flames burned with such intensity there was only one house left, she says things are happening now that “we 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 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.

“You might be swimming in your pool and get a fire call,” says Peta Bull, a volunteer of seven years at Tamborine Mountain in Queensland. “You turn up in whatever you’re wearing – it might be your bikini or you’re 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’s in the line of the fire – homes, farms, crops that need to be saved. “Totally concentrating,” says Liane, “and making sure 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’s 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 fighting fires. What others see as undergrowth, she sees 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, firefighters see perfect conditions for catastrophe.

“There is no humidity, so there’s no moisture anywhere,” says Peta. “Fires are starting from a spark, from anything. Where you probably had the chance before of containing a fire, we’re losing that chance because it’s so damn dry. We’re not getting the rain we need – we’re getting heat – and the wind is drying everything up.”

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