Without exception, every Australian state was burning during the Summer of 2019. Each state has a band of volunteer firefighters alongside paid emergency workers trying to control their own fires. The following is the story of mine. Specifically, the story of my experience as a volunteer firefighter and my photography while on duty in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains during December 2019 and January 2020.
As I write this in early February 2020, the fires in my local area in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, New South Wales, are finally listed as contained. A deluge of rain — the largest in more than twenty years — has finally brought them to heel.
The last situation report I received on the 5th of February said it was the 153rd day of continuous operations in NSW – more than five months. The first fire started in July 2019. By November 2019, most of the mid to north NSW coastline and several hundred kilometres inland was on fire.
By the start of January 2020, New South Wales was ablaze from border to border.
Volunteers in the Rural Fire Service have been fighting the fires in NSW alongside paid emergency workers but it wasn’t just volunteers like me who were a crucial part of those five months. Our partners, friends and children have supported us; local area residents came into the stations to cook for us and help clean the station. People and businesses across Australia donated supplies and services to the volunteer brigades. Local truck drivers brought water in tankers and we had local mechanics servicing our vehicles near the fireground.
Everyone was affected and everyone gave their all.
I don’t know what prompted me to first take a camera with me on the truck. Perhaps somewhere deep down, it provided me with a distraction from the reality of the situation I was in. Over the months I saw images first hand and on the news that were quite frankly terrifying and awe-inspiring.
I wanted to show the other perspective of life in the fireground.
My daily life involved walking across hot embers, under dead tree branches threatening to fall and standing in front of flames taller than my house. Grabbing a camera and looking through its viewfinder removed me from the situation and gave me a little escapism.
I chose to shoot the less dramatic aspects of those months: waiting in the station or the less exciting dry firefighting of creating firebreaks and back burns. We are all volunteers in the Rural Fire Service in NSW – the NSW RFS. We have day jobs, families, friends. We gave up our Xmas break and time with our kids, partners and families. I wanted to show the people holding the hoses, I wanted to put faces to the firefighters on the ground.
There were some limitations to shooting film in extreme climate conditions. I still have a roll sitting in the camera in the shed and I’m unsure how it will come out. It was in the crew locker of the truck on a day where the ambient temperature in Sydney broke a record of almost 50°C (122°F Fahrenheit) so I would hazard that the locker was closer to 60°C degrees or more and that cannot be good for the emulsion.
For those interested in the technical aspects of the photographs which follow below, the film is ILFORD HP5 PLUS and it was shot at EI 800 and 1600. The images shot at EI 800 were developed in ILFORD LC-29 at the suggested times. The images shot at 1600 were stand developed in Rodinal for two hours. These were artistic choices made before the day’s events unfolded. There was also a happy accident with the 1600 speed shots, as I left the developing tank open a crack for a mere second but it added to the drama of the shots in my opinion.
You can view each of the images in this article in full-screen by clicking or tapping on them.
Let’s start with Lachie.
While taking a break on the fireground, I noticed one of our crew, Lachie, was standing away from everyone looking into the bush.
I immediately asked him not to move and went to take a photo. He told me to wait for a second and ran off to grab a rake hoe to add to the feel. This was the shot we got together.
Lachie being cheeky and forgetting it was film, actually “ruined” the first frame (below) but it is one of the favourites of the members of my brigade. It represents the reality of what it is like during downtime on the truck. There is a lot of humour and it really helps to have that fun in among the more serious moments.
When we were on trucks, Pelican and Ian looked after the station and the mass of volunteers who came in to help cook and take care of the place.
Pelican (left) insisted on sitting on the floor in this spot in the shed, I found him there often and he told me it was comfortable – I don’t agree.
For perspective, we have a full lounge set up, tables and chairs plus an office but this spot is Pelican’s.
I joined the brigade with my friend Dan (below, left). While sitting at the station one morning, I proceeded to tell everyone that Dan’s nickname is Teddy Bear…
…it is not and never has been.
Long story short, Dan’s name at the station is now Teddy Bear. This is Teddy Bear talking to the hardest working person in Woodford brigade, our Captain, Keven Wright.
The fireground is perceived to be filled with volunteers in the brigade but we have many other people helping out, including other paid emergency services personnel.
Among those that were out there with us were two mechanics who were stationed just outside the immediate fireground. We would stop for lunch and they would take our air filters, etc and make sure everything was running smoothly.
Lunch would end and we would be back on a truck that was as functional as possible. I caught this lad in the perfect setup for a photo.
I love this shot. The night prior to this shift, I had specifically planned to shoot HP5 PLUS at 1600 and stand develop it in Rodinal. I wanted dirty, dark images and pictured them in my head.
This fellow was walking into a backburn to check it had taken. I got him just as he was got his helmet before wandering into thick smoke and flames. I’m looking forward to getting this negative into the darkroom.
Another from the EI 1600 series of shots. This was a backburn being put in to create a blacked-out edge to halt the main fire from impacting the area. The idea is to remove the fuel and slow or stop the fire. Backburns rarely stopped the fire this season but sometimes slowed it. I love the high contrast of flames against the bush.
At 17 years old, Cameron (above holding the drip torch) is one of our youngest firefighters. He missed a lot of the end of school to be on the fireground helping.
Everyone gave up something to be on a truck.
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I like this image but I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It is the epitome of “happy accident”. This image is the product of the developing tank not being closed properly along with some aggressive stand development and hard water leaving marks on the film.
At EI 1600, the HP5 PLUS is messy with big grain and high contrast. I set out to try and capture some dirty images on this day and by accident, I stepped that up tenfold through mishandling the development and drying of the film.
Below is one of my personal favourite images and a good one to close off this section. I don’t love it from a technical perspective but from the human narrative of my station, it’s up there with the best.
We would start and finish each day together having a meal. It was the time when I truly felt like this was the place I was meant to be in at that moment in time: among peers who all came together for the right reasons.
I need to add a few thank you notes.
Thank you to Woodford Brigade who I transferred to only shortly before this major event. I felt like family from day one and it made the scary moments far easier to deal with.
I also want to thank the local residents who donated time to help support us in the station. Coming off the truck to a hot meal after a long shift…there are no words to explain how good that felt.
Big, big thanks to Ophelia Haragli who has raised money to buy proper masks for us to fight fires in. I cannot explain how thankful the brigade is for these priceless gifts.
I also want to thank all those who donated to the brigade, either items we needed or funds so we can continue to support ourselves over the coming years.
Finally, I want to thank Western Sydney University who supported me as an employee to take the time to fight the fires. To know my workplace supported me being there was a huge weight off my shoulders. Many of my fellow volunteers did not have their employe’rs support, they were afraid of any photos getting out that showed them not working and had to deal with additional stress being put on them outside of the immediate emergency.
Any brigade would love your support, my brigade is Woodford and we would certainly put any donations to good use. If you wish to donate, you can do so via this link: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade
Speaking of “donations”, I would love to shoot a few sheets of 4×5 large format film on the fireground. If anyone has an old MkI Intrepid camera they have replaced which is no longer being used, drop me a line so we can discuss a reasonable exchange rate. This camera is the perfect size and weight for me to carry on the truck.
It can be difficult to explain the feelings, sights and smells of being on the fireground. To try and help, I shot a video, which you’ll find below. Shot on December 19th 2019, we had spent the day in the shed with very little happening but needed to be present in case it went pear-shaped.
At 7:30pm that evening, the crew shut down and we were midway through dinner when our captain called the station from fire control, where he was being briefed.
It had gone pear-shaped.
A call went out for every truck in our district to head up to Darling Causeway where the fire was making a run. I and five others were still in the shed and were the first onto the truck. This video was shot at 11:30pm that night as we moved to a new property to put in protection. The video starts pointing left, where the fire came from and then swings to the right, where it had passed through only minutes earlier and was now heading to impact homes.
I did not leave Darling Causeway until 6:30am the next morning. Please be aware there is bad language at the end of the video.
Warning: Please stop reading now if you aren’t open to political opinion in your photography content. If you don’t get any further than this, thank you for reading. I hope I managed to express some feeling or insight into how it felt to be in the thick of things during these months.
For everyone else still reading, after this season I have a simple request, which I make on a personal basis without any affiliation with the NSW RFS or any other organisation. When you next have an opportunity to vote in your country, know the climate policies of your parties, know their ethics, know who they support and who they serve.
In Australia, we most recently elected for anti-science, climate-denying, corporatists who bought our votes with false promises. We have paid heavily.
While I was fighting the fire in the video above along with thousands of other volunteers who gave up leave and their normal lives to do the same, our climate-denying Prime Minister was on holiday in Hawaii. Even now, after millions of hectares have been burned, thousands of homes lost, millions of animals killed and many lives lost, our government still does not have a climate policy, is talking of new coal stations we don’t need and many in the Liberal party are still denying science which has already been settled.
Know who you are voting for and don’t sell your vote for a tax cut – it is not worth the price we will all pay.
Again, I hope you found some insight through this short peek into life on the fireground. This was a hard article to write when I finally got down to do it. EM will attest to how long it took me to write this from the moment we first spoke of it until now. Every time I sat down to write, I struggled to put my thoughts on the page. I have many emotions tied to this event and to specific experiences I had on and off the fireground. Shooting these frames did help bring some relief from the stresses of the time and revisiting these photos has helped me find some positive experiences during the worst fires in our recent history.
As a result of taking these photographs, I found I also grew as a photographer. I started to see the images before I shot them, something I have tried and failed to do previously. I also made artistic choices days before going out and stuck to them. Small gains amongst wider loss.
I will take quite a few of these photos into the darkroom to make a permanent reminder of this time. I will offer some for the wall of the brigade and some to members. There is also talk of a potential fundraising calendar using the photos taken by members of my brigade so some may find there way into a 2021 calendar, if that comes to fruition.
What happens now?
There is so much bush burned that some think we won’t see fires like these for many years to come. That being said, there’s no arguing the climate has changed and there is still plenty of bush left to burn. Maybe this is the new normal.
I don’t know for sure what comes next but my brigade and I will train for the worst and hope for the best. The fire season is yet to finish and we all hope we don’t see any major events for the remainder of Summer and early Autumn.
As for me, I think it is nice to be back to normal training sessions, mundane office work and time with my family. I know when it hits the fan again, I will be grabbing the camera to document more of the life of NSW RFS volunteers. When I’m not at the end of a hose, of course.
Thanks for reading.
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