SYDNEY – 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 neighbors.
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 centers are protected by career firefighters, although volunteers, most of whom are in rural areas, make up about 65% 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 relies on volunteers for many crucial services, including those of lifeguards at beaches.
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.
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 southwest of Sydney were killed when their truck rolled over.
David Smart, captain of the volunteer firefighters in the Kangaroo Valley, 100 miles 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.
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 Brad Kelly, deputy captain of the Ingleside Fire Brigade, north of Sydney, which tackled a blaze Monday.
On a recent shift, firefighters did not return home until 4 a.m.
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 northwest of Sydney, which has donated presents and helped with groceries and chores.