It will be hard to forget the fires which raged through the long, hot and destructive summer. They burned through millions of hectares, killed 33 people and destroyed thousands of homes and properties. Smoke killed hundreds more. Throughout that period, which in some areas began well before summer, committed volunteer firefighters stayed on the front lines despite difficult and dangerous conditions. As the summer raged on, the volunteers stayed dedicated, often at considerable personal cost.
With a warming climate expected to make the summer of 2019-20 seem cool in years to come, the role for volunteer firefighters will only expand. They are often the first defence against catastrophe marching into Australia's urban fringes.
The Sunday Canberra Times today reports the story of a volunteer firefighter's widow who used a compensation payout to purchase full-face P3 masks for his old brigade. Amelia Maria's husband, Michael Maria, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer linked to smoke inhalation and exposure to chemicals released in fires, in 2012. Mr Maria had been a volunteer firefighter in Queanbeyan and his death in 2013 was acknowledged by the NSW Rural Fire Service as a result of his service.
The initial outlay on P3 masks for volunteers would be a considerable expense, but that tally should pale in comparison to the human cost of avoidable cancer.
The new masks, although expensive, should dramatically limit the Queanbeyan brigade's exposure to the harmful chemicals which likely caused Mr Maria's illness. This type of mask - which protects the whole face - had already been made available to 400 paid NSW firefighters, but not volunteers. The ACT's professional firefighters also have them, but the volunteers do not.
The type of mask issued to firefighters varies by jurisdiction and status, but the hazards firefighters face - and the toxins released by fires - are the same nationwide.
A firefighter's status also determines their eligibility for compensation in the event they develop a cancer for which they are deemed at risk. The ACT government has signalled their support to include volunteers in the Commonwealth scheme, which would be a step in the right direction. NSW's volunteers were granted broader coverage under the scheme in 2018.
While calls for expanded compensation provisions are welcome - and acknowledge the shared risks in all types of firefighting - prevention measures ought also to be implemented. The initial outlay on P3 masks for volunteers would be a considerable expense, but that tally should pale in comparison to the human cost of avoidable cancer.
Volunteer firefighters, who will continue to dedicate ever greater periods of time to fighting fires in longer and hotter bushfire seasons, must be afforded the same rights and protections as their professional counterparts.