Unpaid Volunteers

I’m not going to talk about literature for a minute.

It seems to shock a lot of Americans and the English (the latter most profoundly) that so many of Australia’s firefighters are unpaid volunteers. That we do all the things the professionals do, except forgoing any remuneration for it. Of course, where populations are concentrated there are paid firefighting agencies who are always ready to go. But the simple fact of the matter is that outside of dense population centres, Australians really aren’t that many. I am a volunteer firefighter in Belgrave, Victoria. It’s approximately forty minutes’ drive from the city of Melbourne, where firefighting is done by a different agency and they are paid. I do in a month approximately what that agency does in a day. But what we do is no different. We’ll strap on BA and go into burning houses. We’ll go to car accidents to cut people out or, if they are particularly unfortunate, help clean up what’s left. Then there are suicides, other accidents, house and building collapses, floods. We’re there for all of it.

But this being Australia, the thing that plays on all our minds the most are the bushfires. The Australian forest has evolved to burn. Eucalyptus trees have a special oil in them that helps them do exactly this. If we knew what we know now about how extreme bushfires can be, we never would have built homes amongst the forests of this country. The indigenous peoples did everything to warn us, but we went ahead anyway. There are people who live out there. And they love it 99% of the time. But every few years or so, it burns. Sometimes it takes us by surprise, and we have cases like Black Friday in the late 20’s, Ash Wednesday in the early 80’s, and worst of all Black Saturday in 2009. There are others. We are there to prevent these events from taking place, because in these events, lives are lost. In the case of Black Saturday, 174 of them. I count one extra for my fellow firefighters who lost a patient in an unrelated house fire.

I’ve just got home from some massive fires in country Victoria that did not escalate to Black Saturday-level events because of the hard work of volunteer firefighters, as well as our paid colleagues, our friends in Forestry and Parks and the countless residents who have attended our information sessions and prepared themselves for what can happen. I’m young and still new to this. But I have seen firsthand the years of experience, honed instinct and incredible skill that has developed in these firefighters over years of unpaid dedication. Houses stand today because of us. People are alive because of us. I am alive because of them. I salute them. I thank them for being there and imparting their knowledge so that I may one day work at their level and be worthy of the praise and admiration which is so completely due to them.

Thank you, the volunteers of Australia.

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