The gruelling Wooroloo fires in February left 86 homes destroyed, but what about the firefighters. For some of them the mental battle is not over and won’t be for many years.
The usual calling of cockatoos in the Wooroloo bushlands is met by a crackle beneath the feet, a whispering echo of the previously roaring soundscape. The stumps are black, hollow and deteriorated. The once green foliage is reduced to ash and the smell of smoke is lingering and pervasive.
A battle was fought here but for some it is not over yet. The hoses, their swords; protective clothing, their shields; the fire trucks, their trusty steeds; and the scorching flame, the beast to be slayed. Were they victorious?
Greg Rankine was a crew leader of the Stoneville Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade, fighting the fire for nine shifts, each of eight unruly hours. On February 1, during a snap five-day COVID-19 lockdown, flames ignited and were not extinguished for six more days and after tearing through more than 11,000 hectares.
It was 2am when Rankine received the summons to duty and without question, he set off on the deserted roads. It was the calm before the storm. After meeting with the commander at the headquarters near Noble Falls, he approached the fireground, along a road glowing red on both sides.
“There was a lot of running fire at this stage. There was a lot of smoke and fallen power lines. As a crew leader my mind is going a million miles an hour trying to assess everything. Where do we have to go to be most effective, where is the most danger to us as firefighters and to the public?”
As he stood holding a hose to flames only a few metres from him, Rankine was sweating in his bulky protective coat, pants, boots, and hard hat. The temperature was 30 degrees that day and hot enough to fry eggs on the road. “With vehicles trying to get in and get out, sirens, sounds of things burning and lots of radio chatter, there is a lot of confusion. But, it is controlled confusion,” he says.
Rankine said he was instructed not to fight the fire and to instead protect assets and find a house to defend. He knew then that the fire was significant and very dangerous. In the aftermath, with 86 homes destroyed, many firefighters felt as thought they hadn’t done enough. Even though no human lives were lost and 200 homes were saved.
“I have spoken with a number of firefighters who were burnt on the scene, and some had very close calls. They are now having to deal with that and are having some issues with that because it was so close. I have spoken with some who feel very down and defeated because they have lost houses and just feel they hadn’t done enough,” Rankine says.
Rankine had two days off work to recover from the physical and mental strain of firefighting. In his downtime he decided to drive to Gidgegannup to deliver a chest of drawers to a woman who was having to live out of a caravan. It was a short but impactful visit for him.
“She started telling me her story and she broke down in tears, so I held her for a bit as she settled down. We said our goodbyes and after I left, I experienced a lot of sadness and tears myself. I couldn’t understand why. I basically put it down to not being in the fire truck anymore. I wasn’t in uniform. I was just Joe Public and I guess the emotion just came out and I am glad it did,” he says.
The Movember Foundation says that the rate of male suicide is concerning as three out of four suicides in Australia are by men. The idea that men are too afraid to seek help as they don’t want to appear weak, is one reason why many firefighters struggle with mental health.
“When you are trapped and surrounded by fire you think that you will shortly be dead. There’s no escape and you think you’re going to be burnt to death. That fear and anxiety is going to stay with you a long time. It can be hard to deal with,” Rankine says.
Phoenix Australia says post-traumatic stress disorder is common for many service workers, especially firefighters, who see and experience tragedies. People can experience re-living of events, avoidance, distraction, depression and neglect.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has a Wellness branch, with Wellness Officers like Brett Williams who help firefighters to deal with mental and physical challenges.
“We have proactive strategies to build an understanding of what you might experience on the scene. But we also provide an Employee Assistance Program after incidents, that offers direct sessions with a psychologist for the workers and their families,” Williams says.
“We encourage conversation around mental health, so that people can engage in supports earlier. We provide hope to the people who provide hope to our community. That’s our role.”
DFES led a post-incident visit to the Stoneville Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade where Rankine and his team people were given a platform to talk to allow them to feel appreciated and safe to communicate how they feel.
“Firefighting is such a rewarding job and incidents like Wooroloo are always going to happen. We have to equip [the workers] with the strength and resilience to be able to deal with them when they come,” Williams says.
The Commonwealth-State Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangement has since provided funding of $18.1 million to the communities affected by the fires as part of the recovery plan.
“Even though some people are hurting, I believe our brigade has been brought closer and has really built up the core of our culture,” Rankine says.
As Williams talks about the process of building resilience, and growing the sense of community in his team, outside green shoots are taking back the charred landscape, providing a visual reminder that recovery is a natural process.
If you feel or notice anyone with symptoms of PTSD contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit the Emergency Services Volunteers’ Hardship Assistance Scheme website at waesvhas.org,au.