It's not surprising that Georgeina Whelan is feeling a little under the weather.
The ACT Emergency Services Agency commissioner slept at home just a couple of times during the peak of Canberra's fire season, spending the other nights working, stealing a few hours' rest on a couch or bed in her office, or by her son's side in hospital.
Her husband, a former firefighter, ferried clothes to Fairbairn so the mother of four wouldn't have to dash home to change.
She remembers the exact number of minutes - 117 - she spent at home before racing back to work on the night a fallen tree injured three firefighters responding to the Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park.
Twenty-hour working days were not uncommon, such were the myriad and unrelenting responsibilities of the first-year commissioner and her chief officers during Canberra's "summergeddon" of fire, smoke and hail.
As the various threats finally begin to ease, Whelan - a constant public presence during the summer - could be forgiven for slipping, if only briefly, into the background.
But she wants to talk. There are things she wants to say, conjecture she wants to clarify.
Whelan and her chief rural fire officer, the soon-to-be retired Joe Murphy, want to talk about the summer fire season, including how they prepared for and responded to it.
But, most pressingly, the pair want to address the tensions between the agency and volunteers, which have spilled into the media in the past fortnight.
The territory's first female commissioner wants to explain why she refused to release ACT crews to fight fires in NSW on certain days this season, infuriating volunteers desperate to help their interstate colleagues.
She also wants to explain why she "overreacted" and stormed out of a meeting earlier this month with one rural fire brigade.
A summer crisis
December 27 is a conspicuous date for Georgeina Whelan.
It is her birthday.
It was also on December 27, 2004, that she received the call to deploy to Sumatra to help lead the response to the devastating Boxing Day tsunami.
And it was on December 27, 2019, that she called her agency back to work to prepare for the looming threat of bushfires in the ACT.
"You could read the tea leaves," she tells The Canberra Times in her first major interview about the fire season.
"You could see what was happening down on the South Coast, you could see how unpredictable the fire behaviour was and had been. I had a sense that we were going to be very busy; I just wasn't sure if we were going to be busy in NSW or in the ACT."
Challenges arose quickly, were varied in nature, and seemingly never ceased.
First came waves of toxic bushfire smoke, then waves of visitors fleeing the South Coast fires. Then blazes ignited in the Snowy Mountains, tearing through Kosciuszko National Park and looming ominously beside the ACT.
The ACT government declared a "state of alert" on January 2, with Whelan and Chief Minister Andrew Barr holding almost-daily press conferences thereafter to update the community about the various threats.
The public, understandably anxious after the horrors of 2003, expressed their gratitude through thousands of messages of praise and thanks on social media and elsewhere.
But there were some who worried the constant messaging was counterproductive, that it was unnecessarily heightening anxiety about the dangers posed by fires that were still dozens of kilometres from Canberra's borders.
Whelan makes no apologies for the approach.
"I do think we got the balance right," she says.
"Watching those fires run down the South Coast - one of those fires took a 70-kilometre run overnight.
"When you start to look at the history, and understanding what the needs of the community are and being attuned to the environment and the fire behaviour, we would be crazy not to bring the community on a journey.
"I carefully framed my messaging: 'I do not want to catastrophise the situation, I do not want to paralyse you with fear. But I do want to keep you informed.'"
The threat of the major Snowy Mountain fires - the Dunns Road and Adaminaby Complex blazes - crossing into the territory never eventuated. But the possibility of fires igniting within the ACT's borders did.
A beekeeping operation gone wrong sparked a fire near Canberra Airport on January 22, threatening homes in Beard and Queanbeyan before it was brought under control. The quick and effective response was widely praised, but the relatively brief emergency did expose one serious failure.
The ESA's website - which the agency described as the "single source of truth" - crashed for 90 minutes during the height of the emergency. Blame was attributed to website host Amazon, which Barr said had provided assurances the problem would be fixed.
Just days later, a landing light from an army helicopter completing reconnaissance deep in Namadgi National Park sparked what would become known as the Orroral Valley fire. It would burn through 86,000 hectares - more than a third of the ACT's landmass.
On January 31, Barr told Canberrans to brace for the territory's worst fire day since 2003. Fire prediction maps showed the suburbs of Tharwa, Banks, Conder and Gordon at risk of ember attacks.
The fire would ultimately come within 1.2 kilometres of Tharwa and six kilometres of Canberra's southernmost suburbs, before conditions eased and the threat was downgraded. No lives or homes were lost in the ACT, although the ecological damage in Namadgi was significant. Homes and structures were also lost just across the border to fires sparked by embers from the Orroral Valley fire.
The Orroral Valley fire was officially declared "out" on Thursday.
Whelan says the operation was a success and should be celebrated as such. She highlights the effort to extinguish the Mary's Hill fire, revealing that if crews hadn't been deployed when they were, the relatively small and innocuous blaze would have crossed the border and potentially devastated one of the ACT's key water catchments.
"We didn't lose critical infrastructure, we did not lose the urban/rural interface, we did not lose life, we had very minor injuries," she says.
"There were a lot of firsts this season. By no means were we perfect, but we did pretty good for the number of concurrent firsts that we had over a seven-week period."
A soured relationship
The simmering tension between ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers and the agency's paid staff remained largely out of public view - and the media - during the height of the fire season.
But the anger privately expressed in brigade sheds, closed Facebook groups and emails and letters to ESA chiefs was given a public airing when opposition emergency services spokeswoman Giulia Jones rose to speak in the Legislative Assembly on the morning of February 12.
After praising authorities and firefighters - paid and volunteer - she drew attention to what needed to be examined in the wake of the summer's events. Her speech, which was highly informed by conversations with veteran firefighters, referenced concerns around "urgent duty driving" and the age and safety of vehicles.
One member later told The Canberra Times that volunteers felt like "second-class citizens" and "cannon fodder" at the height of the emergency. He said Parks staff dominated the response to the Orroral Valley fire, leaving volunteers - who had arranged time off from work and other commitments - to sit in their trucks with nothing to do.
Morale was low, he said. Volunteers were fed up.
Whelan and Murphy say their staff were hurt by each of the allegations, particularly when they were republished on social media and seized upon by "keyboard warriors" in the membership.
Neither Whelan nor Murphy attempt to sugarcoat the soured relationship, although neither believes the frustrations aired publicly are widely held.
"Look, the relationship is a challenging relationship," Murphy says.
"But my sense is that it is a small group, but it's a vocal group. They are confident and passionate and I hold no animosity towards them.
"But we have a small group who, no matter how many times we answer their questions, they continue to ask the same questions in slightly different ways. They are trying to drive an agenda .... it's not the whole service's agenda."
ACT Volunteer Brigades Association president John-Paul Romano disagrees with Murphy's assertion that only a small minority of the membership is aggrieved.
"Unfortunately, we have it on good terms that if a full and anonymous survey was undertaken today, that the number of members who identified as unhappy or frustrated would be greater than 50 per cent," he says.
The agency faced a fierce backlash from captains over its decision to ban their crews from using their lights and sirens while responding to fires this summer. The senior firefighters said the restriction was "impracticable, unworkable and failed to meet community expectations".
Murphy says the safety reasons that underpinned the directive were clearly communicated to the brigade captains and presidents. Whether those messages were passed on, understood and accepted by rank-and-file members, Murphy says, is a matter that's out of his hands.
The chiefs are clearly conscious of not telling captains how to communicate with their brigades. After 30 years in the military and emergency services respectively, Whelan and Murphy understand the chain of command.
Whelan suspects part of the underlying frustration among volunteers stems from the reality that the ACT RFS has a relatively "narrow", though not unimportant, role in actively fighting fires.
That isn't due to the ability or experience of the volunteers - it's because of Canberra's geography.
The territory shifts quickly from urban suburbs, where ACT Fire and Rescue is responsible for responding to incidents, to rural and remote areas, which fall within the remit of land managers and Parks and Conservation.
"The first problem we have is that we have a rural fire service in the city," Whelan says.
"I think the biggest challenge for ACT Rural Fire Service is finding their place and having real ownership of what their role is.
"The agency is working with them to better define that. When they compare themselves to others - such as NSW Rural Fire Service brigades in small towns - their role looks very narrow. The reality of it is, unfortunately it is."
Romano says the role of the RFS doesn't need to be clarified - it's written in legislation - but his colleagues would "welcome a greater scope of practice".
Whelan acknowledges that some decisions she made this summer, particularly in relation to interstate deployments, angered volunteers.
She refused to release a group of volunteers to join firefighting efforts on the NSW South Coast in the days before the horrific New Year's Eve blazes. There were a number of factors that led to the decision, she says, including worsening conditions in the ACT and the need to rest battle-weary local firefighters.
"That decision caused a lot of anxiety and concern with a small group of our volunteers," she says. "There is nothing worse than seeing something happen close to your border.
"I don't expect our volunteers to see the big picture - that's my job. If we didn't deploy people to NSW it was for very good reason. It wasn't that we were being negligent, it wasn't that we didn't care."
The second flashpoint came at the height of the Orroral Valley fire emergency on February 1. Some volunteers had been pushing for permission to cross the border to help protect properties near Bredbo, which was under threat from the Clear Range fire. They were held back, much to their frustration.
Things get personal
The frustration boiled over when Whelan and Murphy visited the Rivers RFS brigade on Cotter Road earlier this month.
Whelan says she became "very, very emotional" and left the meeting early and abruptly after what she perceived was an attack on her integrity and supposed lack of care for the volunteers.
She says a member commented that "[she] didn't let people go [to Bredbo] and they let their mates down", to which she responded: "I don't know why you don't know [the reasons why]."
"When somebody says something like that, for someone who has spent their entire life as a solider, who has deployed into third-world countries and who has had to make critical life and death decisions, that for me felt like my integrity was being questioned," she says.
"When, in fact, my team will tell you I only went home three nights - I was sleeping in my office and my husband was bringing clothes in. One of the nights I left here was because my son was in hospital.
"I don't share a lot of that stuff with our volunteers. But I thought they knew me well enough to know just how committed Joe and I were and how much integrity we have."
Whelan says she apologised to one member for her "emotionally charged" reaction, and at the time of this interview she was halfway through drafting a letter of apology to the brigade.
"I hadn't had a day off, I was very tired, I'd been in union negotiations all day. I suppose it hurt me. I overreacted in a very, very emotional way," she says.
The Canberra Times contacted the Rivers RFS brigade for this article, but its captain declined to comment.
There were reports Queensland firefighters sent in to support the ACT crews spent most of the time driving around Canberra's far south, just to show the community they were there.
Whelan says there was a time the Queensland crews were doing "not much" - but that was because the rain had arrived. Murphy steadfastly defends the "PR" exercise.
As for claims that crews could have been sent to Bredbo, or that the operation as a whole was over-resourced and the threat to Canberra overplayed, Whelan offers a simple rebuke.
"We got to a stage where we have a fire that's running on a 193-kilometre perimeter. It burnt 83 per cent of Namadgi. It was less than five kilometres away from a [Canberra] community that had lost 500 homes and lives in 2003," she says.
"All it would have taken was a wind shift to push that fire into Kambah."
Whelan's explanations are unlikely to placate all the volunteers. They might do the opposite. But she acknowledges the agency must improve how it communicates with volunteers.
However, she stresses that while her chiefs will always consult with volunteers, they are not about to start making "decisions by consensus".
Whelan and her senior team, let there be no doubt, are the ones in charge of the operation.
The 'new normal'
The agency will call in independent consultants to help review the fire season. Information will be fed back to the eight volunteer brigades in the hope it will provide a clearer picture of decisions made this summer.
But change is coming regardless of the review's findings.
The lengthening bushfire seasons driven by climate change mean an "off-season" of just five, maybe even four, months.
That's just 16 weeks for volunteers to rest, for new recruits to be trained, and for dozens of vehicles to be serviced. Prescribed burning and other forms of hazard reduction also have to be carried out - weather permitting, of course.
So short is the off-season window that Whelan is preparing to roll out condensed training programs for new volunteers, similar to those trialled last year with the SES.
Murphy won't be around for the next fire season. He's one of the last public servants on the Commonwealth's 54 years/11 months superannuation scheme, and his financial adviser told him he'd be crazy not to retire now.
His advice to his successor on how to manage the relationship with volunteers? "Communicate with the entire membership, not just a select group," he says, before cautioning that approach could also be problematic.
Whelan will be there, as always, driving her team "crazy with the level of preparedness" that she demands.
"Most of my incident controllers would come back and tell you they are a better person for it," she says.
"I oscillate between being a mentor and being very prescribed in what I require, because where there is no room for negotiations is in the safety of first responders or the community."
If Whelan has a laser-like focus at work, it's even narrower at home. Her four children consume her life, she says.
One of the nights spent away from ESA HQ was at the hospital with her son, who had experienced a hypoxia seizure triggered by a heart condition.
Whelan says her son's very poor health is the reason she left the army. The family has spent the past three years working through a bucket list of activities to give him "as many life experiences as we possibly can".
Next on the list is a sleepover at Taronga Zoo. "Roar and snore!", Murphy bellows.
A sports fanatic, Whelan has been pencilled in to blow the viking horn before a Canberra Raiders home game later this season.
Raiders legend Mal Meninga was the most recent local icon given the honour of delivering the pre-match ritual.
After steering Canberra through "summergeddon", Whelan might just match Mal for local fame. At least for the time being.
"You're only as good as your last performance," she says of the public praise she has been showered with this summer.
"So I don't take it too seriously.
"I represent an organisation, so when they say they 'love me', or 'thank you', they are thanking everyone."