Bill Shearman surveys the scene, expressionless, speechless.
Returning to bushland in Bilpin, NSW for the first time since fighting the bushfires that recently razed the area, the volunteer firefighter surveys the destruction closely.
“It's sad to see … the devastation. You can see from here that it came through very hot, very hard, burnt out everything,” he recalls.
“At the time, emotions don't really play a part in it. You're so focused on what you're doing that you don't get a chance to even think about it.
“But now I guess there's an element of wishing I could have done more. I know logically you can't do anything more. Once a fire gets the way it was, there's no stopping it. In this particular situation, we all got home, which was the big thing.”
Shearman, a business efficiency analyst at Westpac, is just one of the NSW Rural Fire Service’s more than 70,000 volunteers who have played a critical role in battling the devastating bushfires in recent months that have claimed more than 30 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and burnt massive areas of land. While NSW has been hit particularly hard, bushfires have raged across the country, marking what experts say is one of the nation’s worst bushfire seasons on record and amplifying the difficulties caused by the drought.
Visiting the Royal National Park near Sydney where she recently battled a blaze, fellow volunteer firefighter Sarah Paterson says fighting fires is described as like being in a “war zone”.
“You're facing a monster and it's you and a hose,” she says.
Shearman adds: “It's tiring physically, it's tiring emotionally, but we jump up, put our hands up to go back out just because it's just what we do.”
As bushfires continue to burn, federal and state governments have stepped up their response with multi-billion dollar funding packages, while corporate Australia has also responded with various support initiatives and funding. As part of its recently announced Bushfire Recovery Support Package, Westpac pledged to offer access to its Disaster Relief Package to all volunteer firefighters nationally. The bank has also implemented uncapped paid leave for employees who are emergency services volunteers in bushfire affected areas, while those wanting to volunteer in bushfire-affected areas can also have three days paid community volunteering.
Paterson, a support lead in Home Ownership Services at St.George, a brand owned by Westpac, describes the RFS as her second family, having joined when she was just 16. She says not everybody is going to be up to fighting fires, but there's many other critical roles volunteers perform.
“We're all volunteers, we all come from all different walks of life. You have this camaraderie that you're putting your life in the person besides your hands and they're doing the same to you. You're instantly sort of like in this like brotherhood,” she says.