The RFS needs more resources, a firefighter's view from the front line

This photo supplied from the Carwoola Rural Fire Brigade.
This photo supplied from the Carwoola Rural Fire Brigade.

Contrary to what we are being told by politicians about the NSW RFS having enough resources to do their important jobs properly, a view from behind the scenes tells a different story.

A Facebook post by the brother of a Braidwood firefighter has been gaining a lot of attention.

Lewin Hodgman posted on Facebook recently that he had witnessed a shortage among RFS volunteers of such basic items as proper boots.

As Lewin says: "This is in no way intended to be a criticism of the RFS who are doing an incredible job with a small budget and a firefighting force made almost entirely of unpaid volunteers in unprecedented fire conditions. But when I hear they have everything they need and there is nothing more the government can do to help, it doesn't line up with the stories I'm hearing from the front line."

The Goulburn Post reached out to him to get permission to re-print his sobering story. It is shared, unedited, in full, below.

A different view of things, by Lewin Hodgman

I currently live in the inner city but I grew up in the bush. I'm home for Christmas on my family property where I grew up near Canberra. The effect of the drought and climate change is shocking. Everything is brown, many people have run out of water, and the rivers have stopped flowing. With the bush so dry the threat of bushfires is worse than ever before.

My 23-year-old brother volunteers for the Rural Fire Service in the local brigade. The day before yesterday (December 23) he was out from 7am to midnight protecting properties near Braidwood. The next morning he left at 8am to work a full day at his job in order to support himself. Today he is missing Christmas with our family to fight the fire again. If he doesn't do this, properties and potentially lives will be lost. He has been doing these unpaid 17 hour shifts for months, including deployments to other regions around NSW.

He looks exhausted and has lost a lot of income due to giving up shifts at his job to fight the fires (like many young people he is employed casually). He estimates the shifts he has given up to volunteer for the RFS have cost him over $2500 so far. It's distressing to see the strain it is taking on him both mentally and physically. He says the morale of volunteers is low but most of them still turn up because there is no one else. He is risking his life and has been shaken by a few scary experiences including when his truck was almost overrun by flames and they were saved by an aircraft dumping fire retardant on them. It's like a war out there. I'm so proud of his bravery and selflessness.

We are told that the RFS have all the resources they need, but from what I'm seeing and hearing this is not the case. I was shocked when I saw one of his boots is falling apart at the sole. He told me he requested a replacement a month ago but the RFS have been too busy. I was surprised when he asked our parents to buy him a better firefighting helmet for his Christmas present this year because his RFS supplied helmet is an older generation without a visor. Another practical issue is that volunteers are only given one set of protective gear. When he gets home at midnight covered in soot and fire retardant there isn't time to wash and dry it before he is back fighting the fire the next morning, so he's often going out in dirty smelly gear.

On Monday, he had another near miss when one of the truck's front tyres exploded while they were driving down the highway with a full tank of water and the truck almost rolled. The RFS trucks do not have roll cages in the cabin like the Victorian CFA trucks. If the truck had rolled they likely would not have survived, as we saw with the two firefighters who tragically died last week when they hit a falling tree and their truck rolled. It's sobering to think it could easily have been my brother on the news.

After replacing the tyre with the spare they were sent back out to the fire front with no spare tyre since none were available, which is dangerous and against protocol but if they didn't more homes may have been lost. Two of the four trucks in the local brigade are currently out of action. The pumps and engines are failing after months of heavy use in hostile environments, and there are no spare parts in stock.

He said one of the hardest parts of his job has been driving property to property and telling people they can't save their homes because they only had two volunteers in one small truck to cover 20km of active fire front, while all the aircraft are deployed at the bigger fires around Sydney. He said he can't bear seeing the look on people's faces when he tells them there's no help coming. He has had to do this all week because the RFS is stretched so thin.

This is in no way intended to be a criticism of the RFS who are doing an incredible job with a small budget and a firefighting force made almost entirely of unpaid volunteers in unprecedented fire conditions. But when I hear they have everything they need and there is nothing more the government can do to help, it doesn't line up with the stories I'm hearing from the front line.

Lewin Hodgman.

Lewin Hodgman.

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This story The RFS needs more resources, a firefighter's story from the front line first appeared on Goulburn Post.