“THANK YOU FIRIES!’ We’ve heard it a lot over the last few months after Australia’s fire season kicked off earlier than usual. The devastating blazes lighting in October and raging through the New Year were met with all the force and strength of the Rural Fire Service. A collection of brave men and women from all walks of life coming together to protect the community.
For most of us, the fires just hang in the back of our mind as we go about our lives. We breathe the smoke, we watch the news, we know it’s out there, and we know that there are men and women out there fighting it. Thanks to them the majority of us get to go to work, spend time with our families, relax in our homes and enjoy the holiday season.
But that’s not the reality for those heroes. They kiss their husbands, wives and children goodbye, donning the yellow jacket and heading into harms way. They accept the risks, they face the challenges and they do it all as volunteers, sacrificing more than just money, so that we don’t have to. Andrew Emanuel, a veteran of the RFS, Assistant Principal at Chisholm Catholic Primary School, South Windsor and parishioner of St Monica’s in Richmond is one of those heroes.
Having joined the RFS in 1988, the father of four watched as his Tennyson brigade grew from six members to over 40. He served as a Training Officer, the Brigade President and now works as the Senior Deputy Captain.
Now joined in the brigade by his son Luke, Andrew and the Tennyson brigade stood ready when in late October, the Gospers Mountain fire sparked – a fire that would become one of the biggest forest fires to have started from a single ignition point that Australia has ever known. When the phone rang, Andrew kissed his wife Cathie goodbye, grabbed his gear and went to work.
“Faith teaches you, you are part of a community, to reach out to other people in your community and help out in some way, to support,” said Andrew. “RFS happens to be the way that I do that.”
During the more than two months that the Gospers Mountain fire raged, Andrew had a number of responsibilities. Working as a crew leader responding to calls and taking directions from HQ, the safety of his crew and community always foremost on his mind.
On 13 November, the day after one of the most dangerous days so far this season, Andrew and his crew were tasked with going door to door along the Putty Road, looking for people still unaccounted for.
“It was like you’re on another planet,” said Andrew. “There’s just black sticks and black ground and you think ‘Is this ever gonna come back to the bush it was?’
“My faith teaches me there is always hope,” he said. “Luckily on that day we were able to find everyone who was unaccounted for.”
After two months of constant fires it would be understandable for the RFS men and women to lose hope, but it’s Andrew’s faith that keeps him going.
“It will rain. I say to the crews, we’re one day closer to the next day of rain. Yes, it was a full-on day, but we made a big contribution today to support and protect these properties.”
One of the oft forgotten, but incredibly significant parts of the RFS family are who are left behind – the spouses and children left at home without contact for hours on end, but who nonetheless offer their love and support in any way they can. For Andrew, that’s his wife Cathie. “I go to bed but I don’t sleep soundly,” says Cathie, recalling a situation she’s become all too familiar with over more than 30 years. “It’s not until I hear him walk in the bedroom door, and I hear him in the shower, feel him on the pillow, I get that smell of bushfire … then I know he’s safe and I can relax.”
“I pray to Mary, I think of her because I think it would have been really hard for her as a mother to watch Jesus go out and do all he had to do,” said Cathie, fighting back tears as she remembered all the difficult nights spent home with the children.
“There would have been that element of motherliness saying ‘don’t go too far’, or ‘be careful’ … But she didn’t. She allowed him to go.”
“So, I look up to her, and I think… that’s the part of Andrew that I fell in love with, that part, that he wanted to help people. And I have to accept that and allow him to do that and be proud of him. Even though it’s hard. It’s hard for those who are left behind and are worried.”
For Andrew and Cathie, the smell of the fire and smoke are constant reminders of the very real danger. Just holding his jacket, even after being washed, the smell of smoke and burning wood lingers on Andrew’s fingers.
“It takes a while to get that smoke back out of your system. It’s the coughing – you sort of feel like your body is saturated, like you’ve absorbed all this smoke and you’ve got to get to an area where there’s no smoke and you’ve got to take time to get it out of your skin, out of your hair, out of your lungs,” he said.
As it always inevitably does, the fires will stop burning, the national attention will move on, and for most, the memories of the fires will fade to only be recalled when the next catastrophe strikes. But Andrew, Cathie, thousands of other RFS volunteers and their families, as well as those whose lives have been turned upside down, won’t be so lucky. The scars, physical and emotional will be slow to heal. But the rebuild starts, and the RFS begins to prep for next time.
By Benjamin Conolly. Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Weekly, the news publication of the Archdiocese of Sydney.