An Australian Firefighter on the Frontlines of Climate Change
This is the first in a global series of interviews with first responders. Emergency service personnel care not only for our communities but witness the immediate effects of climate change whether they be floods, fires, or droughts.
Anthony Green is a volunteer firefighter from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the largest fire service in the world with over 70,000 volunteers. We recently spoke with Anthony about his unique perspective as a firefighter who witnessed the devastating effects of wildfires on human life and wildlife. Eastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions of the world. Extraordinarily intense, the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season burned over 100,000 square miles and destroyed over 2,500 homes.
CH: Describe your role as a member of the fire service.
AG: I’m a volunteer firefighter, so I don’t get paid to do what I do. The NSW Rural Fire Service is a volunteer service and it covers most of the state, physically. It’s massive. It’s one of the biggest fire services in the world with about 70,000 volunteers. It’s spread across a large area in south eastern Australia, about double the size of California.
CH: When did you join the fire service?
AG: I joined the fire service in 1994. I was 15, maybe 16. My grandparents lived on a farm in a very small community. Maybe a few hundred people. The local fire service was something we did with a community perspective and it was infectious.
CH: Do you think the volunteer culture within the fire service is something unique to Australian?
AG: Yes and it’s not just firefighting, it’s other emergency response services too. There’s a very strong history of volunteering in Australia. It comes from being a very sparsely populated, remote country where it’s somewhat impractical to have full-time paid emergency service workers in every corner of the state. You don’t have the people or the infrastructure. Some people even think it’s a bit of an insult to suggest paying volunteers.
CH: What does your day-to-day look like with the fire service?
AG: I spend most of my time in a helicopter or an airplane doing tactical supervision from the air. We manage aviation assets. Being in the air and being able to see fire from the sky is incredible because it looks so different to being on the ground. When you’re on the ground and there’s a 50 foot high fire, it’s very hard to get some appreciation and scale of what someone who’s six-foot tall on the ground sees looking up into the sky as 200 foot trees are on fire.
CH: Even here in the United States, we were aware of the intensity of Australia’s 2019-20 fire season. What was that season like for you?
AG: When I joined the fire service, there was a massive wildfire in 1994, which went through most of Australia. And we thought that was the biggest forest fire in the history of mankind but it was eclipsed by 2019-20. And eclipsed not just in terms of area burned, but structures lost, homes lost, personal property lost, lives lost. It was the worst fire season in a very long time. It’s also the intensity with which the 2019-20 fire burned. Prior to the 2019-20 bushfire season, we had an extreme drought. Some parts of New South Wales hadn’t seen rain for 5, 6, even 7 years. So the underlying drought factor in New South Wales was horrendous.
Prior to that year, I hadn’t remembered a fire starting and just being unable to deal with it within a couple of weeks. Our forests are very remote. There are no roads, there’s no way to get to them other than helicopter. You can’t walk to them, you can’t drive to them. Most fires get dealt with in a couple of weeks. We had fires in 2019-20 that burnt for three months, which is unheard of, and they burned millions of hectares. The size and the longevity of the fires highlighted what’s happened over the last ten, twenty, thirty years in the fire service.
CH: You know the ingredients that can create a perfect storm for a bushfire. Did it feel like a ticking time box before that fire season?
AG: Yeah, we normally can predict with reasonable certainty the frequency of large fires, and they normally come about every decade. But what was coming this time was much, much bigger.
I think people underestimated a couple of things. One was how dry it actually was. And then we had an unseasonably warm winter and spring. I’ve never seen before 45 degree temperatures on the ground, not just for a few hours, but for days. And that just kills everything. Second, it’s unquestionable that the seasons have got longer and become more intense too. I’ve also noticed that the Northern Hemisphere’s fire season and the Southern Hemispheres fire season overlap a lot now. We used to have a big break between seasons. Often in the northern hemispheres’ fire season, we send crews to the US and to North America and vice versa. Now, you could still be in your fire season and you could be sending crews down to Australia. We’re often competing with the northern hemisphere over when to bring back aviation assets and when to leave them here because we both need them.
The other thing that I’ve seen over the years is the impact it’s had on life. Not so much on personal property, not talking about houses, or farms, or stock, but the mental health impact on people. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty years ago, no one really talked about it. I know it existed, and it was around, but no one ever talked about what these catastrophes do to people. We’ve had towns in my state that have been completely wiped out by fire, every house has been razed to the ground. Whole communities have been removed. There’s a lot of investment right now in healing people’s mental health as much as possible. I’ve never seen that sort of investment into rehabilitation of people.
CH: Are there any anecdotes from the 2019-20 fire season that stand out to you?
AG: I think what I’ve never seen before is the loss of stock: people’s animals, livestock, sheep, cows, pigs. That’s a pretty graphic sight and stench. I’m talking about thousands and thousands of dead stock lying around. I was in a number of situations where we would land and you might see hundreds of stock just standing in the corner of a paddock and the fire will be coming toward them. We were able to cut fence lines with some pliers and just let stock go. I don’t know if they survived or not.
A couple of times, I’d see fire enveloping houses. In some situations, people were just trapped in their houses. They couldn’t escape, it was too late to leave. In many instances helicopter rescue crews were able to pick up families and fly them out to safety. Houses were completely destroyed by fire. We had a couple of lucky saves but the vast majority of times we were unable to do anything and lots of houses and people’s livelihoods were destroyed.
Our aim is to protect life and protect property. Property could be lots of things: someone’s house, shed, or caravan. Or it could be their livelihood: their stock, their fruit trees, or their apple trees. Being able to do that sort of thing is strongly entrenched in my mind.
CH: Thank you for sharing that. It’s difficult to ask someone who’s been in that position to revisit and share some of those memories. Many people are very much at a distance from everything, even for people who care and do their best to educate themselves. Unless you’re there, I think that chasm is massive.
AG: Yeah, you’re right. And I think we [firefighters] do a bad job of talking about it. Especially if we’re just tasked for a day, you might leave home at early hours of the day, work all day firefighting, and then come home and go back to normality. I think I’m pretty lucky in that I’ve got plenty of people to talk to because a lot of people can’t, especially older guys, I think there’s a stigma.
AG: Yes, absolutely.
CH: Do you see the fires through the lens of climate change? Do you view them as a one off event?
AG: Its both. Seeing the effects of climate change and how that’s changed the severity and longevity of the fire season has made me acutely aware. If I didn’t see first hand that impact, I wouldn’t be as aware. That awareness leads me to be more careful.
I’m certainly not a denier. I can see the effects. But if you don’t see fire, you don’t see floods, you don’t see sea level rise, it’s very easy to just shrug your shoulders and think in 50 years time maybe only then we’ll see the effects, and then I’ll be gone. Now I see the actual effects not just the perceived effects, and see the misery it brings to people’s lives, makes me acutely aware of how strong a force it is.
It’s hard to unsee what we’ve seen. It’s not an accident. We don’t have more intense fire season and flooding because it’s a fluke. It’s happening because there’s a reason.
I’m scared to think what it will be like in 20-30 years time. The rate of change has become more obvious more recently. Maybe because I’m more aware of it, or more because it’s actually increasing: it has appeared to be more intense than before. It’s changed and probably irreversible.
The opinions expressed within this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinion and beliefs of the NSW RFS or the NSW Government.