Australia Fires The Thousands Of Volunteers Fighting The Flames

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Australia Fires The Thousands Of Volunteers Fighting The Flames

“We’re doing it because it’s a passion. It’s a brotherhood,” says Daniel Knox.

“When that photo was taken of me, I had done a 15-hour shift out there.”

He is one of thousands of Australians who’ve dropped their ordinary lives to battle the nation’s raging fire crisis.

For weeks, the 22-year-old landscaper has lived around his phone, springing into action when called upon.

He is part of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) which calls itself “the world’s largest volunteer firefighting organisation”. Its 70,000 members are extensively trained and, except for a few senior staff, mostly unpaid.

Mr Knox joined his local brigade in Sydney’s south-west five years ago, when he was 17. He bonded with a senior member – Andrew O’Dwyer – over football and photography.

“He took me under his wing, looked after me and helped me out so much. The respect he gave me, a young bloke, even when I made mistakes… he was my brother,” he told the BBC.

Last Thursday, Mr O’Dwyer and Geoffrey Keaton, the deputy captain at the Horsley Park Fire Brigade, were sent out late at night to a massive firefront.

En route their truck was hit by a falling tree, which caused it to roll. Three firefighters in the back seat were injured but were able to escape.

Mr O’Dwyer and Mr Keaton – both fathers to young children – were killed at the scene. They died five days before Christmas.

Earlier, bigger, more dangerous fires

Since September, close to 3,000 firefighters have been out every day in New South Wales battling blazes the size of small European countries.

Close to 90% of those people on the ground are unpaid volunteers, says the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), the government-funded organisation leading the fight.

This century-old model is common across Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia – Australian states which have traditionally had bushfires each summer. In recent years, fires have also flared up in Tasmania and sub-tropical Queensland.

In NSW, most of the 2,000 or so brigades are found in country towns and rural centres dotted among eucalyptus bushland. Members are almost always locals, stepping in to save their own communities.

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Historically, the work has tended to be patchy, which has been a key factor behind the volunteerism. Fires don’t rage all year round, and there have been years when many areas aren’t affected at all.

But this year, the situation has changed. Intense blazes typically seen in later summer have flared in spring, forcing authorities to wage full-blow campaigns earlier than ever before.

“People don’t get it, people think how do you risk your life and not get paid for this stuff?” Mr Knox says.

“And yeah, there have been times when I’ve been in the thick of it, and it’s so fierce you can’t breathe. And I’m thinking to myself, what am I doing here?”

“But when you’re on the truck, you’re with your brothers,” he said.

He took care of Mr O’Dwyer’s young daughter when the prime minister visited the station on Sunday, to meet with her grieving mother.

He says he’s proud of the photo he shared last week, which was taken in a controlled setting. The image of him standing in the middle of a flaming forest has gone viral. Mr O’Dwyer had helped him put the finishing touches on the edit.

“Everyone has a choice in life, in what they want to do when they wake up in the morning,” says Mr Knox.

“I’d rather be out there firefighting – doing our part for the community. Making those two boys proud of us for getting back out there.”

Australia Fires The Thousands Of Volunteers Fighting The Flames

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