'Nothing but fire': Veteran firefighter's Black Summer confession

Firefighter Matthew Reeves has 30 years of experience fighting bushfires, he’s worked his way up from a volunteer to a NSW Rural Fire Service district coordinator – but it was the 2020 Black Summer bushfire season that almost broke him.

“It was a prolonged period of nothing but fire activity, nothing but focusing on that next deployment with very little time to recover,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“That’s the kind of element you can’t prepare people for.”

Matthew Reeves,  NSW Rural Fire Service district coordinator
Matthew Reeves receiving Commissioners Commendation for contribution to learning and development. Source: Supplied

Firefighter reveals season was worst he’s seen

Mr Reeves works with the Illawarra district and explained that even with years of experience and training, there was no way to prepare crews for the fatigue of constantly battling the Black Summer Bushfires that saw 24 million hectares of land burned, more than 3000 homes destroyed and an estimated three billion animals killed.

“The fires really were the length and breadth of NSW, it started up north and finished down on the border in February, March,” he said.

“Just by the very nature of how much fire there was that season... it’s definitely the worst I’ve seen.”

RFS firefighters battle catastrophic fire conditions.
RFS firefighters battle catastrophic fire conditions on November 13, 2019 in Hillville, Australia. Source: Getty

A memory that stays with Mr Reeves was a moment when he was coordinating crews battling blazes in northern NSW and was left scrambling trying to prioritise where to send resources next.

Even with extra crews brought in from Queensland, aircraft in the sky, and firies working tirelessly around the clock, he realised it still wasn’t going to be enough.

“Day after day it was the same thing – we were getting hammered and some new fires broke out and our resources were already stretched,” he recalled.

The most difficult job on the Black Summer frontlines

Mr Reeves would take calls from terrified families trapped in their homes surrounded by fire.

Often located hours away, he frequently knew even if there were trucks to send they wouldn’t reach the properties in time, leaving him no choice but to try and help people over the phone.

“To know that you can’t physically step in and help someone in that situation, you’ve just got to try and talk to them on the phone and get a sense of the situation, almost triage how much danger they are in and then do your best to guide them,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“It was obvious they didn’t have a plan or were caught out in the last minute, and to try and talk to them and calmly approach the situation so they don’t get themselves into more danger that was probably one of the most difficult elements of the season.”

Matthew Reeves on deployment in Canada
Matthew Reeves on deployment in Canada. Source: Supplied

Firefighters ‘just got worn down’

Thirty-three people died in the Australian black summer bushfires, including six Australian firefighters and three American aerial firefighters who were killed when their aircraft collided with terrain.

After crews around Australia managed to contain the fires and gain back some control, there was finally time to reflect on how volunteer and full time first responders were managing.

“Coming out of it we realised that a lot of people were physically prepared, prepared with their skills and somewhat psychologically resilient, but people just got worn down,” he said.

A 2018 study showed a staggering 40 per cent of workers and 33 per cent of volunteers were diagnosed with a mental health condition in their life, compared to one in five for the general Australian population.

Black Summer Bushfires: 33 people died, 24 million hectares of land burnt, more than 3000 homes destroyed and and billions of animals killed.
Black Summer Bushfires: 33 people died, 24 million hectares of land burnt. Source: Getty

Mr Reeves’ wife is a volunteer firefighter – a position which comes with different challenges, that some can struggle to cope with.

“By nature, volunteer services don’t clock on at the start of the day, it’s not like walking through the doors of work and saying ‘am I mentally prepared to face what I’m going to face?’ - you could be getting home from work, hugging the kids and the pager goes off,” he explained.

“A few minutes later you’re into a pretty bad situation, so you either stay in that vigilant state all the time which means you get a bit detached or you’ve got to have that ability to mentally snap into gear and snap out of it and be in family mode.”

Matthew Reeves on state public liaison duties. Source: supplied
Matthew Reeves on state public liaison duties. Source: supplied

One in three emergency workers experience psychological distress

Research shows one in three emergency service workers experience high to very high psychological distress.

The Black Summer bushfires highlighted the need for more support to be given to first responders.

A free online program called Peak Fortem has been launched to help first responders and their families cope with the unique challenges they face, based on a successful UK model and supported by Prince Harry.

Peak Fortem is designed to equip first responders and their families with proactive tools to build their mental fitness and enable them to better work through the varying stressors and trauma that may occur in carrying out their role.

A fire fighter observing a NSW bushfire during the Black Summer Bushfires
Research shows one in three emergency service workers experience high to very high psychological distress. Source: Getty

“The work endured by first responders is confronting, dangerous and quite often traumatic. It has only intensified further this past year alone,” John Bale, Managing Director and Co-Founder at Fortem, said.

“We also understand the stress and burn-out endured by family members and seek to support the entire family unit.

“This is about getting on the front foot and adopting simple measures that will better support our frontline.”

Mr Reeves agreed that building mental resilience should go hand-in-hand with building the physical skills it takes to do the job.

“For those who experienced the fires last year, a lot could be said, the horse is already bolted but I think looking at the program it will give people the opportunity to make sense of how they were feeling and that it was normal,” he said.

Readers seeking support and information about mental illness and suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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