Their faces and uniforms blackened by soot and ash, the Wallan volunteer firefighting team thought they had the blaze they were battling in Australia’s Victoria state under control, aside from a few spot fires started by the floating embers that dotted the sky.
But then the wind changed.
Suddenly, Braydan Fletcher and his team found themselves facing a 150-kilometre-wide wall of flames.
“That’s where your training and your reliance on the team around you kicks in,” the 30-year-old, whose full-time job is a transport operations manager, told Al Jazeera.
The team made a narrow escape, but for Fletcher, it is all part of being one of Victoria’s 59,000 Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers.
“It’s all about being able to protect people,” he said, admitting that while the job can be thrilling at times it can also be scary.
“This has taught me so much about giving rather than taking,” he said back at the Wallan fire station surrounded by his “second family” – a diverse team of men and women ranging from students to tradesmen and academics.
While the waves, toots and thank yous they receive from the locals as they drive towards a job give “a warm feeling of satisfaction”, Fletcher said it was appreciation from his CFA family that meant the most.
“You know that you’ve got them looking out for you just as you’re looking out for them.”
Unprecedented fire season
This year, an unprecedented number of fires that are still burning throughout Australia have scorched more than 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of land and claimed 28 lives including five volunteer firefighters.
The damage and the death toll would undoubtedly be much higher if not for the courage of Australia’s volunteer brigades who make up the vast majority of the country’s fire crews.
In neighbouring New South Wales, more than 72,000 volunteers have made the state’s Rural Fire Service the largest volunteer firefighting organisation in the world.
But the scale of the fires that have been blazing across the state since September, means they have had to call on crews from Victoria, including the Wallan brigade.
Bec Lyons, an 11-year CFA volunteer, was called across the border after she had already been fighting another fire in Victoria. She ended up spending 22 hours on the front line.
“It was exhausting. And then you stink, you’re covered in ash, so you still gotta have a shower before you go to bed,” she told Al Jazeera.
For Lyons, who also works as a nurse and an ambulance medic, the work is all about being part of the community.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “Being able to be there for people in their time of need.”
Spike in volunteers
Cooler weather and rain has brought some respite to ravaged landscapes, and Fletcher has begun training new volunteers at the Wallan fire station.
As they carried out fire hose preparation drills, the bright uniforms of the new recruits stood in stark contrast to the soot-stained, faded jackets of the senior fighters.
Fletcher joined the CFA 11 years ago when he was 19.
He said he was driving down the highway with friends when they saw a fire truck coming the other way. It was the time of the “Black Saturday” bushfires that tore through parts of Victoria killing 173 people.
“I was looking up at the firefighter who was driving,” Fletcher said.
“He was covered in soot and ash and you could tell they’d had a big fight that day. He gave me the thumbs up and I thought, ‘I wanna be like him.'”
The same week, Fletcher signed up for training.
Eleven years later, he is now one of those soot-covered fighters inspiring the next generation.
In the past month, the brigade has received more volunteer applications than they would normally get over a 12-month period.
They have just trained 20 new recruits, boosting their numbers to 104, including 20 juniors, 15 support crew and more than 60 operational firefighters who man the team’s four fire trucks.
Eagerly running the drills led by Fletcher was 16-year-old Bodhi Edmonds who first signed up as a junior when he was 11.
“CFA members came to my primary school and they did a smoke demonstration,” Edmonds said, explaining the various fire survival techniques they were taught.
He was so excited he went home and told his Mum. “That weekend, I came down to the station and I signed up.”
As a junior, Edmonds learned basic skills and participated in community events and competitions, but he had to wait until he was 16 to complete his final operational firefighting course.
“I’m very anxious waiting to go out and I’m very excited,” Edmonds told Al Jazeera, adding the intensity of this year’s fire season has not dampened his ambitions.
“It really just makes me want to go out there and help.”
Flames ‘as high as the truck’
Sitting nearby, 19-year-old Jacob Angelino recalled his first assignment after training as a junior.
“You train and practise, but it’s nothing like when you actually get out there and see the flames. You know what you’re doing, but you get a bit thrown back,” the university student told Al Jazeera. “Now, I just rock up. I know where everything is, I know what I’m doing and it’s just bang, bang, bang.”
While the volunteers receive calls year-round for everything from house fires to gas leaks and car accidents, Angelino said the larger blazes do not normally come until February.
This year’s fire season came early with a new intensity, and crews from Victoria have been helping in NSW since November. The flames, he said, were “as high as the truck.”
The time commitments can take a heavy toll, especially for people who already have studies, jobs and families.
But the workload is steadily growing.
“Last calendar year, we did 280 jobs,” said 37-year-old Nathan Anderson who has been a CFA volunteer for 26 years and is the Wallan brigade captain. “When I first began, we were doing about 110.”
The battle against the mega fire in northeast Victoria has been going for three weeks, and on top of the workload, training is mandatory.
“It’s a second full-time unpaid job,” said Anderson, whose wife and children are also CFA volunteers.
Last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said volunteer firefighters in New South Wales who are self-employed or working for small businesses could this year apply for a payment of up to 300 Australian dollars ($205) a day with a maximum of 6,000 Australian dollars ($4,102) in total. But firefighters in other states were not included in the offer.
But none of the volunteers in Wallan care about financial compensation.
University student Carly Ficheroux, a volunteer of seven years, said she passed up an opportunity to live and work in Spain because of the “mateship and comradery” among the crew.
“The other day one of the farmers, who was fighting with his own vehicle beside us, just waved to say thanks,” she said. “It was the most meaningful waves I’ve ever gotten.”