opinion

An open letter to the Prime Minister, from a firefighter's wife.

This photo was taken ten hours ago. The man in the middle of the photo in the red braces is my husband, Graham King. He’s fighting fires today as a volunteer. His shift won’t be over for a few more hours.

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Image: Facebook/Permacoach

When I saw this photo, posted by our friend David Glover on our local community page, I briefly had the thought that if anything happens to Graham today, this will be the last photo I have of him, so I saved it.

Graham’s a fairly private person and probably won’t be happy that I’m writing about him, but today the Prime Minister was quoted as saying the volunteers “want to be there” and it made me really angry.

Does he honestly think that this is how we want to spend our summer? With Graham away, every other day fighting fires, and sleeping or resting on the days in between? We have no idea how many days or weeks this will last.

Emily Smith lost everything in NSW bushfires. Post continues below.

Video by Channel 9

As the Prime Minister uses public money to jet off and have dinner with the Murdochs does he appreciate what it’s like to watch my husband walk in the door again and again with soot all over him and a flimsy disposable face mask between his precious lungs and the toxic smoke?

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Or how angry I am that the fire fighting budget was allegedly cut last winter by his colleague and fellow Liberal, Gladys Berejiklian in her capacity as our state’s premier? (Please see images below before asking me to fact check).

How about some helmets for volunteers with proper filters? Does he appreciate that a P2 facemask is the best they can offer my husband and that on his last shift he came home with the lower-rated P1?

The P1 is the kind of thing you put on to move mulch or open a bag of potting mix. Even the P2 is supposed to be well fitted to work properly and nobody seems sure that it’s appropriate for smoke in any case.

Does the Prime Minister understand that my husband has just one set of yellow protection gear, known as PPE, so after he wears it for a shift he has two choices; he can wash it and hope it’s dry in time for his next shift or he can wear it smelly and dirty.

Does the PM know that in order to get any new item my husband needs to hand in a damaged one or get special clearance from his captain for a second set? It’s not like he’s going to wear his PPE to do the gardening, but giving everyone two sets of gear is apparently too expensive.

I wonder if the Prime Minister has ever fought a fire? If not, why not? Can he imagine what Graham’s night was like a few days ago when everyone was urgently called out at around 4pm. It was around 1am after a night of back burning that Graham and his captain and crew leader, Rob, were finally told to go home.

Can the Prime Minister even comprehend what it was like for them to see a tree fall across the path of their truck just as they got the message to stand down? Or the sinking feeling they must have had when they realised they had walked backwards and forwards under that tree all night?

I’m guessing it hasn’t even crossed the Prime Minister’s mind. Nor has the effort required after a long shift to cut the tree up so that they could get out. They needed two chainsaws because the first one became blunt while Graham was cutting.

They are supposed to resharpen the chainsaws as soon as they return to the station but Graham left it until the next morning and did it then, on his 'day off'. It’s possible the Prime Minister doesn’t appreciate that volunteers also do all the routine maintenance of their gear.

No, Mr Morrison, my husband does NOT want to be fighting fires. He would rather be writing or playing music, or building things for the garden, or teaching permaculture or any one of his many hobbies.

I would rather have him here. We could both do without the stress and anxiety but we both understand the importance of what he and his fellow RFS colleagues are doing.

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They are saving people’s lives and homes. This means that if our own home is at risk of fire I’ll have no choice but to leave early. I can’t stay and defend on my own. Graham carries this knowledge with him while he’s saving other people’s homes; ours might burn while he’s doing that.

Graham is over 60, officially retired and has had asthma all his life. I look at him in this photo and see him with other volunteers, breathing in the smoke and waiting to be sent to whichever part of the mega-fire will be their particular front for today.

They are all sick of hearing “unprecedented” even though that’s a really accurate way to describe what is happening. The last report I checked tells me there are 85 fires burning across the state of NSW and 42 of them were uncontrolled. This is actually a bit misleading.

We’ve all got the RFS Fires Near Me app so we can keep track of what’s happening. The fires variously shift from being listed as “being controlled” to “uncontrolled” throughout the day so there’s no firm count.

There are also a number of fires that have now joined up, meaning that the total number of fires looks like it’s decreasing where in fact they are just becoming an impossibly huge fire front. The black outline of the burnt bush creeps slowly across the screen, day by day.

We don’t have decent rain predicted until mid-January and it’s the 10th of December. The smoke is chokingly thick this week and people in Sydney are posting photos of it. My husband is up on the mountain breathing it. When he takes a break he pings me a quick kiss so I know he’s still alive.

It’s difficult for people that have never been first responders to understand their stress. People like Graham are passionate about helping others and protecting our beautiful natural environment. Someone on a friend’s Facebook asked how volunteers could end up with PTSD. “They’re volunteers. They can just not go.” Stupid comment.

Volunteers are the kind of people that keep pushing themselves beyond the point where their bodies tell them to stop. They do it because they are deeply committed to making a difference.

I wonder if the Prime Minister understands this when there are calls for better welfare support, better access to professional psychologists and better training to avoid PTSD in the first place. Or is he busy balancing the economic costs?

I don’t suppose he has ever felt the pressure of a community that depends upon him to keep them safe. No pressure. Just say no if you don’t feel like going.

I wonder if the Prime Minister has considered what would happen if the volunteers just decided not to go. Or what will happen when they are all exhausted, worn down, emotionally frayed and unable to go back. Of course, they will have already gone back several times after they reach this point because there is nobody else to go.

Listen to Mamamia's podcast, Mamamia Out Loud. In this episode, Holly, Jessie and Lem discuss our Prime Minister's response to natural emergencies, in comparison to others. Post continues below.

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Graham is particularly angry at reports in the Murdoch press that blame The Greens for the fires.

How are people so gullible that they believe this stuff? The Greens are the only party ever to come up with a comprehensive policy on climate change. Decades of government neglect caused these fires.

The science has been available and verifiable. We knew this was coming. It was preventable. And the only party to actually come up with a plan to prevent it is also the only party to NEVER have held power, so how they have magically had such a significant influence is beyond me.

The fire line is full of ‘greenies’. It’s these people that become volunteers. Our community depends upon ‘greenies’ to protect the bush, to rescue the thousands of injured animals and to return after the fires to help restore the natural world.

They will lose sleep, spend their own money and ask for nothing in return. It would help if they weren’t also being held responsible for the predictable consequences of climate change.

I love this photo. It’s typical Graham to be straight-faced and thinking of his duties as crew leader and deputy captain while his crew have a bit of a laugh before the serious work begins. These people are his good friends, as well as his colleagues. We all live in the same community.

Like him, they are giving up their own time and possibly some paid work to fight fires. They don’t want to be there either. They would rather be anywhere else. But there are fires and they are needed, so they are there.

That’s what I want the Prime Minister to understand. These people volunteer because they have to. Someone needs to protect our community and it certainly isn’t going to be Scott Morrison. People join the RFS out of necessity. If there was a paid fire fighting reserve force they wouldn’t need to.

In the midst of all the calls for better equipment, better support and more funding for our RFS I have a different dream. I dream of a day when they are redundant. When a real leader with the vision to respond to climate change steps up and implements the urgent strategies we need to draw down carbon, reduce and eliminate fossil fuel use and repair and restore the natural world.

I don’t know anymore if a complete turnaround is possible. It was... a decade ago. They didn’t act. History will remember them for that.

So no, Scott Morrison, my husband does not want to be fighting fires this summer. But he will fight fires, along with the estimated 2,700 other volunteers. They are not there by choice. They are there because it is necessary.

Your inaction on climate change and the inaction of every leader before you for at least the last 20 years has made it necessary. They are there because they care about our community, our bushland and our planet.

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If only we could say the same of you.

FACT CHECK: Thanks to my mate, Ross Beckley, for these images in response to my request for proof that the budget was cut. Please don’t confuse this claim with the ALP’s recent incorrect claim that the budget was GOING to be cut by $40 million. That’s a different ball game:

nsw agency-expense-summary
Image: Facebook/Permacoach.
nsw fire-brigade-media-release-1
Image: Facebook/Permacoach.
nsw fire-brigade-budget-cuts-1
Image: Facebook/Permacoach.
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nsw agency-expense-summary-2-1
Image: Facebook/Permacoach.

... And there's more.

Mamamia Out Loud, our bi-weekly podcast, is coming to Melbourne for a live show, with 100 per cent of all ticket proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund.

It's a brand new show, full of laughs and news and opinions and a few special surprises, with Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens, on February the 11th. You can buy tickets right now at mamamia.com.au/events. See you there! 

This post originally appeared on Smarter Than Crows and has been republished here with full permission.

Feature image: Getty.

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