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The severity of Australia’s bushfire season has strained the capacity of the Rural Fire Service (RFS), a force of some 70,000 volunteer firefighters scattered across New South Wales. Last month, facing criticism for resisting calls to compensate the “firies,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined a one-time payment plan to ease financial hardships.
But still unresolved is whether Australia should continue to depend on a volunteer force as climate change extends and intensifies the fire season, imposing heavier physical and financial burdens on firefighters.
“We’re seeing bigger fires, more fires, a longer season,” says Mark Wilson, captain of the RFS brigade in Wingello, where a fire incinerated a dozen homes earlier this month. “That means ... more time away from work and our families, and more risk.”
The principle of altruism that defines the RFS shrouds a disparity: An estimated one-third to half of the volunteer force lacks the desire or ability to handle the dangers of riding into fire zones.
Capt. Ian Aitken, who leads a 45-member brigade in Batemans Bay, leaned on 15 volunteers to shoulder most of the unit’s calls. “If we’re looking at this kind of fire season year after year,” he says, “we’re in a spot.”
The station house of the Beaumont Rural Fire Brigade nestles within the quiet lushness of a mountain forest. Time and again since November, Capt. Dave Macquart and his crew have left behind their verdant refuge to support firefighting efforts along the southeastern coast as Australia burns. They clamber onto the unit’s lone firetruck and descend out of Eden, risking their lives for a daily wage of $0.
Mr. Macquart and his 20-member brigade belong to the Rural Fire Service (RFS), a force of some 70,000 volunteer firefighters scattered across New South Wales. Similar corps of “firies” exist in neighboring Victoria and other states, manning the front lines against hundreds of infernos in a bushfire season already considered the most severe in Australia’s history with half the summer remaining.
The ferocity and scale of the fires have strained the service’s capacity to respond and stirred public debate about the country’s reliance on a volunteer firefighting model that dates to the late 1800s. Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced sharp criticism last month when he resisted calls to compensate the volunteers and told reporters, “These crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities.”
Three weeks later, following an uproar from RFS members and their supporters, he outlined a federal plan to pay firies who work for small- and mid-sized employers up to $6,000 (Australian; U.S.$4,100) to cover lost income. The move occurred days after he announced that volunteer firefighters with federal government jobs would receive four weeks of paid leave.
The decisions allayed a short-term concern without resolving the simmering question of whether Australia should continue to depend on a volunteer force as climate change extends and intensifies the fire season, imposing heavier physical and financial burdens on firefighters.
Straining volunteers’ goodwill
Fewer than 150 people live in Beaumont, an affluent enclave 100 miles southwest of Sydney, where Mr. Macquart joined the brigade in 2002. A retired civil engineer, he ascribed his rise to the captain’s position to attrition in the ranks rather than his own ambition. He views the volunteer model as outdated and the prime minister as out of touch.
“When I hear ‘they want to be out there,’ my hackles come up. I don’t love doing it; I do it because it has to be done,” he says. His brigade has aided units as far as 80 miles away as bushfires have burned more than 26 million acres and 3,000 homes across Australia. “There’s an overreliance by the government on the goodwill of volunteers.”
The firies occupy a venerated place in Australian culture – handmade signs thanking them dot the fire-scarred coast and donations have poured into brigades – and their collective pride runs deep. Despite the outcry over Mr. Morrison’s comments, many members of the 2,000 RFS brigades regard the idea of regular payment as an affront to their ethos of service.
At the same time, the unpaid army fighting the infernos has absorbed mounting casualties, with five firefighters among the 28 people killed since September. (Three U.S. firefighters died Wednesday when their aerial water tanker crashed in New South Wales.) Mark Wilson, captain of the RFS brigade in Wingello, west of Beaumont, asserts that the government should provide tax breaks, reimbursement for supplies, or other incentives given the rising perils imposed by climate change.
“We’re seeing bigger fires, more fires, a longer season,” says Mr. Wilson, whose unit tried in vain to contain a blaze that tore through Wingello earlier this month, incinerating a dozen homes. “That means more supplies, more time away from work and our families, and more risk.”
A graying force
Carlyle Seers looked as if he might fall asleep on his feet outside Wingello’s fire station. The brigade’s senior deputy captain has logged weeks of 12- to 18-hour shifts as the two-truck unit ranges across the South Highlands between Sydney and Canberra. Adrenaline and a sense of devotion to Wingello’s 600 residents has sustained him.
“This work restores your faith in humanity,” says Mr. Seers, who has taken leave from his job as a prison corrections officer to battle the bushfires. “You feel an emotional bond to the community. You’re serving people and trying to protect them and their homes. That’s why we joined.”
But the principle of altruism that defines the RFS shrouds a disparity: An estimated one-third to half of the volunteer force lacks the desire or ability to handle the duties and dangers of riding into fire zones. An array of factors – age, declining physical fitness, insufficient paid leave, family obligations – can deter firies from answering a captain’s call.
The Wingello brigade comprises 40 members. Mr. Wilson describes half of them as its core – the men and women who fill the three- to five-person rotations on trucks as the unit defends its territory and assists other brigades in the region.
“It’s been a tough load,” Mr. Seers says, pausing to pinch his eyes, his voice a soft rasp. The fire that struck Wingello nearly claimed his home after forcing the brigade to retreat. “We’ll keep going because we have to keep going,” he adds. “There’s no other choice.”
The median age of RFS members exceeds 50, and volunteers under 25 make up less than 15% of the corps. The unrelenting pace of the bushfire season has tested the resilience of a graying force that mirrors the country’s aging rural population. Hundreds of firefighters have struggled with dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke, and dozens have reported broken bones and other injuries.
Most of the Beaumont brigade’s 20 members are age 50 or older. Mr. Macquart, who has worked 30 truck rotations since November, can count on about half of them to roll out to fires.
“It takes guys in their 60s two days to recover from a 12-hour shift,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”
“Like a big family”
The RFS provides fire and emergency services across 95% of New South Wales. The state’s Fire and Rescue agency, with 7,000 paid firefighters, covers urban centers. By comparison, volunteers represent two-thirds of the total firefighting force in the United States, serving mostly in rural areas.
Over its vast domain, the RFS nurtures an egalitarian cohesion, treating rank almost as an afterthought. “It’s a bit like a big family,” Mark Dodd says. A retired journalist and commercial diver, he belongs to the Darkwood brigade north of Sydney. “It’s not a rigid model. Authority is determined on the basis of competence, not if you wear the captain’s red hat.”
Yet this fire season has exposed the limits of the RFS meritocracy. As a volunteer, a firefighter can decline to suit up, and a brigade captain has little recourse, creating a potential shortage of manpower as flames devour the landscape.
Capt. Ian Aitken leads a 45-member brigade in Batemans Bay along the charred southeastern coast. He leaned on 15 volunteers to shoulder most of the unit’s calls from late November until early January, when the threat subsided.
“My guys gave everything, and we still have a lot of summer to go,” says Mr. Aitken, an RFS volunteer for more than 20 years. The return of hot weather and high winds stoked fires Wednesday south of Batemans Bay, portending more grueling weeks ahead. “If we’re looking at this kind of fire season year after year, we’re in a spot.”
Mr. Dodd’s unit has responded to blazes in a rainforest outside Darkwood and more than 500 miles away in a national park near Canberra. Most of the rotations fall to six or seven volunteers in the 19-member brigade.
He suggests that Mr. Morrison’s compensation plan, if extended to future seasons when conditions warrant, could entice more firies to pull truck shifts while preserving the volunteer tradition.
“Paying people for being on the ground in these kinds of fires – it would be a good step toward encouraging greater professionalism,” he says. “And that might encourage the people who can’t hack the work to get out.”
“Loud and clear”
Ben Grosskreutz moved to Wingello from Sydney in 2015 to escape the rush and racket of the city. The flight attendant with Virgin Australian Airlines joined the RFS brigade, seeking to forge a bond with his new town.
He appreciates that his bosses granted him four weeks of paid leave to work on the fire crew this summer. But he worries that turning all or a portion of RFS volunteers into paid professionals would fracture the service’s sense of unity.
“Ninety-nine percent of us do not want money,” he says. “That’s not why we’re firefighters. If you started paying us, there would be resentment over who’s getting paid or how much they’re getting paid.”
The head of the RFS has said volunteers have told him “loud and clear” that they prefer to forgo payment. The sentiment appears to prevail even as Australia, after marking its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, endures a bushfire season that veteran brigade chiefs rank as the worst in memory.
A fire three weeks ago in Kangaroo Valley, a tourist town of 900 residents, torched a half-dozen homes and an adjacent national park. The blaze occurred near the end of an eight-week stretch that forced Capt. David Smart to run his crews day and night.
“We’ve had bad years before, but it’s the size and number of fires that’s different this time,” says Mr. Smart, a 38-year volunteer. The nonstop shift rotations drained the financial reserves of some firies whose employers denied them paid leave. “You don’t get rich doing this, put it that way.”
Mr. Morrison’s one-time payment plan will ease the hardship of volunteers who meet the eligibility requirements. Others will need to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and strangers.
Tess Duffy, deputy captain of Wingello’s brigade, started a GoFundMe campaign for her younger sister, Lucy Brearly, a member of the unit. Ms. Brearly, who stepped away from her job at McDonald’s when the fire season exploded, fails to qualify for the federal subsidy because she’s a part-time employee.
Ms. Duffy favors the RFS staying a volunteer organization. “But this season has been an extraordinary situation,” she says. “Firies have been under pressure, and to also have to worry about money – that’s the last thing you want.”
The RFS has reported a spike in enlistment inquiries as public support for firies approaches the level of deification. Residents applaud volunteers when they enter stores, buy them drinks at restaurants, and drop off home-cooked meals at stations.
Mr. Seers and other firefighters consider those gestures ample payment. Rather than salaries, they urge the government to spend more on firefighting equipment.
“The fact is,” Mr. Seers says, “there’s not a pot of gold large enough to pay this force. It’s just too big.” He blew out his breath. “But giving us more of what we need to fight these fires – that would be nice.”