The real unsung heroes of fire fighting effort
WHEN Tyrone Dungey was battling an unstoppable fire storm ripping through Nymboida last year, the one person critical to ensuring his valiant efforts could save lives and homes wasn't on the fire ground, they weren't even in the Rural Fire Service.
Anxiously waiting to hear news of the village she knew intimately was Nymboida Primary School teacher Louise Hankinson, waiting for updates from her husband. Which homes had been impacted? Was the school still standing?
When Tyrone is on the frontline, Louise holds down the fort. Adopting every responsibility of caring for their daughters and looking after the home, all while working full-time. It's a position equally as integral as Tyrone's, and the one thing that allows him to jump on the truck at all hours.
"Sometimes it has been really difficult," Louise said. "When it's days and days on end, or where he's gone away for five or six days.
"I work full time as well, the kids have lots of activities. We leave the house at seven in the morning and don't get back till six or seven at night. It's like being a single parent a lot of the time.
"Hats off to them. Being away all day then turning around at night and every responsibility is yours, is how it feels sometimes."
Tyrone has been in the service for eight years. The Southampton RFS brigade captain loves the adrenalin rush he gets from being on the firefront.
Outside of his RFS yellows, Tyrone is a registered nurse at Rathgar Lodge at Ulmarra. But when the fire season is at its peak he will be called out for up to five days at a time, sometimes with no more than an hour notice.
He lost count how many fires he attended this season, except to say he, like so many experienced firefighters, has never seen anything like this before.
"The day Nymboida went up, I went to three fires that day," Tyrone said.
"We ended up Copmanhurst way then we responded up to Fineflower, then we got responded from Fineflower to Nymboida.
"I think we worked 16 hours that day. I think I got home at six o'clock in the morning on a Saturday. Tired and grumpy, kids and wife are at home, I want to sleep.
"Then go back out that night.
"It's not just that time that I was at the fire. It was that time during the day when all I wanted to do was sleep. And then get up and we were back out by five o'clock the next afternoon.
"This season has been the worst I've experienced, by far. It's the first time I've seen houses burn and the fires have just been huge and unstoppable. It doesn't matter what you do."
Last December, a family Christmas gathering interrupted by the familiar screech of a siren filled their Waterview Heights home, setting teeth on edge, the ringtone signalling to Louise and their girls what was coming next.
"That was the day after Annabel's birthday," Tyrone said.
"It was January 3, I got an hour's notice. They were desperate for crews to go down south. I was gone for five days.
"Usually if dad isn't home and he's supposed to be home, just expect he's at a fire," 11-year-old Annabel adds.
When the call comes through, whatever hour of the day or night, irrespective of it being Christmas Day, or New Year's Eve, Tyrone feels a tinge of responsibility knowing the consequences of saying no can always be life-threatening.
"I can say no," he said.
"I once turned down a fire call, because I just couldn't be bothered. There was no reason to not go. It ended up being a very good mate of mine's house, and the fire went to his house, it was up against his house by the time we got it, and they were short crewed.
"(Had there been) more crews there it might not have been as bad.
"We're short o
f people in the RFS. Often I'll ring my brigade around and if everybody says no, well okay, I'll go.
"If I can find a crew of five, or four, or three, depending on the truck, I'll send them out. But if you can't find the appropriate skill mix on the truck then you do feel some sort of compulsion to go out to make sure they're safe.
"With what's happened this year, losing a few volunteers, that's always in the back of your mind. That they'll put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time."
When Annabel was awarded third prize in the annual Long Way Home writing competition, friends and family gathered at the Ulmarra Hotel to celebrate her achievements.
Tyrone went to a fire.
"It's something I'll never get back, which affects you.
"I talk to a lot of our older members in our brigade, they've all been in well over 30 years. We talk about this in the truck sometimes when we're driving around. Their kids, who are all quite old now, still talk about the day they walked out on Christmas lunch. They remember you missed this birthday, that birthday."
Tyrone's team of support in Louise, their children, Louise's mother and an understanding workplace are the unsung heroes rarely considered for the critical role they, and every RFS volunteer's family play, in accepting what they must give up as they watch a loved one walk away at Christmas or on a birthday, to protect another family from heartbreak.
"I couldn't do what I do without my wife, and the kids, and my mother in law," Tyrone said.
"I would ring (my mother in law) because I'm supposed to pick up Annabel from school and I would ring her at two or three o'clock and say is there any chance you could take her, I've got a fire to go to."
Having grown up around the Southampton fire brigade, Annabel knows more than most Year 6 students about what it takes to be a great firey. She proudly boasts her fire spotting skills as being better than her dad's, and cannot wait to join the brigade next year as a cadet.
"It just feels like you're doing something back to the community," she said.
"If dad wasn't in it, I wouldn't think I would join."
It can be annoying, Annabel said, when her dad is pulled away from important life moments. But looking to follow in his footsteps, she is proud her father has a role in protecting other families. A role that will one day be hers.
"I have some friends at Nymboida," she said. "One of them she lost her house.
"It's good to know that dad is doing something that helps."
The unprecedented fire season that has been recently relieved due to a deluge of rain across the state has pushed volunteers to the limits. Firefighters working beyond their allowed hours because there is simply no other option.
To Louise it doesn't seem like a sustainable system.
"He couldn't do it unless there was somebody at home looking after the kids," she said. "And the same with all the other fireys, unless someone's helping support them at their job or, if they have kids, looking after the kids.
"If climate change continues to impact, and we get this level of fire, and possibly worse, and saw that the RFS was stretched to the limits this time, what are they going to do when they've exhausted all their volunteers?"