As all Australians would be aware, we have had a tough Summer with bush fires destroying over 18 million hectares and killing many including our wildlife. Law In Order had two of our staff members at the fire front, Jason King and Ethan Cupitt.
A common theme to their stories was the grateful welcome their teams received wherever they went, with offers of food, drink and other gifts from locals. We’re grateful to our brave volunteers as well.
Jason King is a Senior Software Developer in our IT team in Sydney.
He decided to get involved with the Royal Fire Service (RFS) after seeing the devastation from local bush fires via news reports while living in London from 2001-2003. Upon returning home, after a couple of months of training, Jason qualified as a basic firefighter in the Davidson Brigade (Northern Beaches).
This Summer, he spent most of his time on the fires located near Sydney as part of “strike teams”. This involved 12 hour shifts on top of travel time, which meant spending up to 18 hours away from home. Jason also undertook a two day shift at the Snowy Mountains doing property protection.
“The environment that we were in was surreal - darkness at 4pm, thunderstorms and lightning, and sludgy rain,” Jason said.
Most of the fires around Sydney were located in inaccessible areas of bush, so their strategy was to build containment lines and put in back-burns to remove the available fuel from the fire.
“I spent a number of shifts cutting these trails with chainsaws, hand-tools and blowers, putting in back-burns behind properties or patrolling the fire edge to ensure that the fires would not re-ignite,” Jason said.
The locals were quick to show appreciation, showing up with food and drink (including beer) when the teams arrived.
“The over-cooked gingerbread biscuits and hand-made thank you card from an eight year old girl was my favourite,” he said.
Jason was most touched by those who lost their homes or were unable to defend them due to their efforts in protecting others.
“Previously, I have been in a situation where residents were returning to their neighbourhood to gaze upon their smouldering ruins again,” he said.
Jason leaves us with a simple warning that bush fires can happen anywhere. If you live within three kilometres of the bush, it’s important to understand how to prepare your home and know your evacuation route and destination if threatened by a fire. The NSW Rural Fire Service have a simple tool to help you prepare - https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/resources/bush-fire-survival-plan
Ethan Cupitt is a Delivery Supervisor in our Copy team in Sydney.
He served on Operation Bushfire Assist in a Joint Task Force (JFT) of Navy, Army and Airforce. He was among over 150 other soldiers deployed less than 24 hours after the call out of 3,000 Army Reservists.
Ethan recalls the first day as a media storm.
“Media came from everywhere to film us loading up food, water and hygiene products on trucks that we drove to community centres. We met Ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott that day, who called us “Scomo’s Troops” - a nickname which stuck,” Ethan said.
He did a variety of practical tasks with the JTF including humanitarian efforts and clearing service routes and communication towers.
An important part of their mission was simply being seen; to talk to the locals and bring a sense of calm by their presence. Also, spending money in the small towns was important to help keep their economies going.
Ethan is haunted by some of his memories.
“At Lake Conjola, 89 houses and 3 lives were lost in the small town of less than 500 people. The trees were scorched beyond recognition - all that was left were fragile black sticks jutting out of the ground. In other areas, you could see signs of rejuvenation and wildlife returning, but at Lake Conjola the only sound was the wind and the falling of branches known as ‘Widow Makers’. The sounds you often take for granted were absent; not a call of a bird or the breeze flowing through the thick tops of the trees. We were informed by the National Parks Service that there was no risk of another fire, but only because there was nothing left to burn,” Ethan said.
Falling trees were their biggest threat with three RFS personnel dying from burnt out trees coming down.
“One of the days at Lake Conjola, a weather warning came through of severe winds, storms and hail. We packed up all our gear, but it was already too late. We were inside the burnt-out forest so trees and branches were coming down everywhere. We got the convoy of vehicles together and hastily headed back to HMAS Albatross. On the way to the Pacific Highway, branches and trees were coming down all around with some branches flying off the trees and smashing into the side of the vehicle and my windscreen. Luckily, no one was hurt and the only damage was done to vehicles and not to people,” he said.
He also saw burnt out houses with asbestos warnings, so Ethan knew he was probably breathing in the dust of burnt asbestos.
“This was a small fraction of what the reserves have dealt with over the past few months. I can only imagine the hardship that the fireys went through with some unfortunately paying the ultimate price in their commitment to help people in need,” Ethan said.