M, 92 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Volunteering in this country is strong. We saw how it boosted the Sydney Olympics. Then two decades later the Australian volunteering public was called on to do more, and then some, during the incredibly testing conditions of the Black Summer of 2019-2020. From south-east Queensland to the Southern Highlands and Far South Coast of NSW, to eastern Victoria, volunteering took on a whole new meaning.
This is a documentary about the men and women of the NSW Rural Fire Service and the communities they risked their lives for during the hellish nightmare that unfolded two years ago. NSW RFS is one of the largest volunteer fire-fighting organizations in the world and, as former Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons points out, 90 percent of the RFS are volunteers and most people have no idea that their work is unpaid.
A Fire Inside tells it how it was, and how it is now
It’s what these firies do. When they are needed, they down tools in jobs in the public service, or retail or design consultancy to don hi-vis gear, jump into emergency services vehicles and head towards the fire front. Most people run away from bushfire, observes Brendon O’Connor of Balmoral Village RFS in the Southern Highlands, while the RFS runs towards it.
O’Connor who was formerly in the military is one of two key witnesses whose story shapes this riveting documentary, a timely release coinciding with Glasgow COP26. Nathan Barnden of Jellat Jellat RFS is the other key witness. Both men were traumatized by their experiences, had near death experiences and are now transitioning to recovery. Many of us will not have realised that volunteering day after day in a constant state of high alert, where survival is touch-and-go, has an inevitable human cost.
On the night in the Southern Highlands when two young fire-fighters lost their lives, O’Connor, a captain in the RFS, refused to leave Balmoral Village unattended as instructed. Conditions were extremely volatile after three years of drought throughout Australia’s south-east, but he stayed on, as many did in fact, throughout the regions, taking enormous risks to save lives and property.
It’s Nathan Barnden’s remarkable, harrowing personal story that helps structure the narrative. It began when the Badja Forest fire burst out of the mountains and sprinted across the tinder-dry dairy country of the Bega Valley towards the coast.
Overwhelming to see images of tiny figures in silhouette in the foreground of towering walls of flame
Barnden and a fellow fire-fighter, answering a call to 000 from Quaama, jumped into a 4WD without any fire-safe features, the only vehicle available, and drove through fireground to the house. A family of seven were huddled together inside under a blanket with three quarters of the building alight around them. After the men had managed to drive them out to safety, with minutes to spare, they risked their lives to save several more families within the hour. It was the night that Barnden’s uncle and cousin in nearby Wandella were killed by a fireball as they tried to defend their property.
Despite the family tragedy, he continued working for the RFS, non-stop without a moment to grieve, for the next two months. Unsurprisingly, he is still carrying a burden of guilt about not being there for his uncle and cousin on the day the fires began.
It is still overwhelming to see those images of tiny figures in silhouette in the foreground of towering walls of flame. When day turned to night on New Year 2020, I was with my family sheltering in Bermagui surf club, while fire tore through our block south of Cobargo.
The apocalyptic vision from eastern Australia that summer shocked the world and the smoke drifted across the globe. At the end of it all, when rain suddenly fell, there had been 200 consecutive days of emergencies and an area similar in size to the UK, or to the area in North America from Vancouver, Canada to Mexico, was burnt out.
Directed in workmanlike fashion by Justin Krook, with assistance from Luke Mazzaferro, A Fire Inside tells it how it was, and how it is now. The second half of the doco is devoted to mental health, food charities and to building community resilience, the area to which Shane Fitzsimmons has made a natural segue from his former role.
There is little need for embellishment with raw, unfiltered human content such as this, still so extraordinary and riveting for us all. Hopefully, it’s being screened at Capital Hill.