The wildfires in Australia have made headlines around the world as our First Responders battle some of the biggest fires in living memory. In the last three months these fires have burned out more than 86,000 square kilometres of bush (uncultivated land), destroyed over 2,700 homes and killed at least 34 people. An estimated one billion animals have also been killed and some endangered species such as the iconic koala may be driven to extinction. At the time of writing, in my own state of New South Wales (NSW), 62 fires continue to burn, 22 are out of control.
During this unprecedented fire crisis, Australian Defence Force assets have been mobilised to provide air support, manpower and logistics to the firefighting effort. Firefighters and equipment from France, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and the United States are are also helping our exhausted volunteers to fight the fires.
It has been a relentless season and summer still continues to bake the dry Australian landscape with 40+° C days, causing fires to grow and expand at an alarming rate.
Many stories have been written about the heroic efforts of our firefighters but the work of our paramedics often goes unreported. As the Senior Chaplain at NSW Ambulance, I have watched paramedics and managers work until they are exhausted, supporting community members and firefighters injured by the fires, affected by the smoke or traumatised as they have lost everything to the flames. Following the latest fires across the beautiful South Coast of NSW over the New Year period, some of our paramedics have also lost their homes.
In my role, I manage a team of volunteer chaplains who provide pastoral care and psychological first aid to our paramedics. We are trusted members of the staff support team who provide a listening ear and counsel our staff, connecting them with whatever additional welfare and psychological support that may be required.
In mid-January I lead a team of ten Ambulance Chaplains on deployment to the coastal communities affected by the fires, visiting every ambulance station and connecting with the staff and managers working hard to support their communities during a time of crisis.
Many of our staff faced real danger as fires roared into their suburbs and flames clawed at their vehicles as they evacuated and treated the injured. During our deployment, we heard stories of paramedics doing CPR illuminated by the orange glow of the fires, of a crew delivering a baby for a mother unable to leave her farm as roads were cut, and using fire hoses to defend their ambulance stations whilst their own homes were at risk of being destroyed.
The visit of the chaplains let the paramedics tell their stories, validate their experiences and start to process the enormous impact these fires had had on our staff. It was a privilege to be invited into their lives and the sanctity of a close knit paramedic team and to offer comfort and support to those who sacrificially give to others.
At the time of writing, a deployment of paramedics from Sydney are being sent to the South Coast to allow local crews to stand down and rest. It is hoped that our organisation will continue to support our staff in such practical ways as they recover, rebuild their homes and restore their lives.
Summer is still not over in Australia and the fires still burn. Today a new fire has started just outside Australia’s capital, Canberra, and may impact directly on the city in the coming days. It is hot, it is dry and it is exhausting for our people, but our paramedics continue to go, and help, and care.
It is what we do.