Australia's strained volunteer firefighters find it hard to pause, even for Christmas

New South Wales Rural Fire Service watching back burning operations near Picton, Australia, on Dec 22, 2019. Many firefighters are unpaid volunteers who have drained annual leave from their jobs to work 12-hour shifts to protect communities. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - Ms Lucy Baranowski, a volunteer firefighter, has taken time off work over the past three weeks to battle one of the biggest blazes ever recorded in Australia. The smoke has given her a cough. She and her husband, also a firefighter, are tired to the bone.

Friends had to step in to ensure that Santa would visit her four children.

"We hadn't had time to do Christmas shopping or Santa photos," she said. "It's like running a marathon for however many weeks straight."

One of the worst early fire seasons in Australia's history has so far left 10 people dead, destroyed nearly 1,000 properties and consumed millions of acres. To confront the danger and protect communities, the country has relied on its overwhelmingly volunteer firefighting force.

The volunteers, some of whom have been working more than 12-hour shifts as they drain annual leave from their jobs, say they are getting by through a combination of adrenaline and a sense of duty to their neighbours.

But as the physical and emotional toll on the thousands of unpaid firefighters mounts, Australia is facing questions about whether it can continue to rely on a volunteer force as climate change contributes to an ever-lengthening fire season.

In the United States, most population centres are protected by career firefighters, although volunteers, most of whom are in rural areas, make up about 65 per cent of the overall firefighting force.

In Australia, as calls have grown for the country to begin compensating firefighters, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that doing so is not an immediate goal, and that fire chiefs have not asked for the change. He noted that Australia relied on volunteers for many crucial services, including those of lifeguards at beaches.

Ms Sandra Lunardi, the acting chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, which coordinates firefighting efforts, said it would be difficult to institute a compensation system.

"To pay firefighters to be present in the numbers necessary and in the places necessary to give quick response to bush fires" in rural Australia was "a significant challenge, particularly when these fires are prolonged and frequent", Ms Lunardi wrote by e-mail.

But members of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, which represents firefighters in Australia, said at a news conference last week that it was "bewildering" that the government expected volunteer firefighters to work for months on end without compensation.

As they do so, the firefighters are risking their lives in the face of blazes that are growing larger and more intense as the country gets hotter and drier. That danger was tragically illustrated last week when two firefighters battling a blaze in a town south-west of Sydney were killed when their truck rolled over.

Mr David Smart, captain of the volunteer firefighters in the Kangaroo Valley, 160km south of Sydney, said that his brigade was taking steps to manage the increased demands. The firefighters were cycling shifts to try to avoid fatigue, he said, but the long days still wore on them. And then there is the emotional trauma of seeing houses and bush land destroyed, he added.

"I think everyone is very stressed," he said. "People are tired. It's been going for weeks on end."

The burdens that fell on volunteer firefighters were lighter in the past, many said. In previous years, fires were more spread out through the year, said Mr Brad Kelly, deputy captain of the Ingleside Fire Brigade, north of Sydney, which tackled a blaze on Monday (Dec 23).

"They weren't just one big continuous line of activity through that whole time," he said.

On a recent shift, firefighters did not return home until 4am.

"If a house is being impacted, you're not going to walk away from it," Mr Kelly said.

Ms Baranowski, who comes from a family of firefighters, said that, "We do it because we need to do it."

But taking time off to fight the blazes has strained her family financially, she said. They have managed only with the help of their local community north-west of Sydney, which has donated presents and helped with groceries and chores in the house.

That community spirit was especially apparent after the two firefighters were killed last Thursday. Both left behind young children, and an online fund-raising page for their families has already raised more than US$230,000 (S$311,600).

In Balmoral, a village south-west of Sydney where fires destroyed homes last Saturday, donations to the rural fire service filled the station and brought some firefighters to tears.

"I haven't even gone Christmas shopping or anything for my daughter," a visibly moved Andrew Johnstone said in an interview with Nine News. "We just tried so hard to save some people's homes and everything."

On Tuesday, Mr Morrison, who has been criticised for his government's response to climate change as well as for his decision to take a vacation in Hawaii as the fires raged, announced that volunteer firefighters who were also federal government employees would get four weeks of paid leave to fight the fires.

"Today's announcement is about ensuring our volunteer firefighters can keep focused on the job at hand," he said in a statement.

He acknowledged, though, that the measure would do little to benefit volunteers who were self-employed or who worked in the private sector.

Opposition leader, Mr Anthony Albanese, welcomed the move but said it did not go far enough. He has called for the government to find ways to compensate the firefighters, perhaps through tax measures or one-time payments.

Compensated or not, firefighters said they were prepared to jump back into action even as conditions were expected to improve over Christmas, with some rain and cooler temperatures.

"Fire doesn't stop," Mr Kelly of the Ingleside Fire Brigade said. "Work still needs to be done."

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