Australian Volunteer Firefighter On Fighting This Year's Massive Wildfires
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Australia, wildfires this season have killed at least 18 people and damaged hundreds of homes, and the worst may yet to come. Alongside the career firefighters, there are thousands of volunteers who are fighting the flames. Among them is Mark Walkom. He's a volunteer firefighter in Dubbo in western New South Wales. He's been travelling to neighboring areas to help fight fires, but I started by asking him what it's been like at home.
MARK WALKOM: There's been times in the last couple of weeks that I've been woken up by smoke coming into the house, and you wake up thinking, hey; something on fire inside. And then you go and have a look outside, and it's - the winds have blown in this pretty heavy smoke - fog, I suppose. It's kind of scary when you get woken up by that. You go out in the morning, and you watch the sunrise. And it's just this big, bright orange blob due to the smoke. You go out at nighttime. You can only see the very bright stars when, normally, you can see this amazing Milky Way. But the smoke's just obscuring everything.
CORNISH: Now, I understand you've only been with the volunteer service for a little more than a year. This is very dangerous work. What has it been like so far?
WALKOM: A lot of running around, you know, whether you're driving a truck on pretty horrid roads to get to a fire, carting water for other trucks, you know, trying to get a break from the heat. It's pretty exhausting at the end of the day. You go to lie down, and you're physically exhausted. You just want to go to sleep, but your mind's just constantly ticking over, reviewing things, thinking about - I hope the next crew's OK. What's it going to be like tomorrow? - you know, sort of trying to do that planning.
CORNISH: I understand two firefighters were killed last month when a tree fell on...
CORNISH: ...Their vehicle. Another died when his truck flipped in a fire tornado. How...
CORNISH: ...Have these events affect how you handle yourself in the field?
WALKOM: It really heightens watching out for dangers, you know? The most important thing about doing what we do is making sure we come home. It's all good and well to save a house. But if we don't come back, then that's sort of the bigger issue. So you spend extra time watching for dangers, watching out for your team members, watching out for your mates, just making sure that everyone's safe.
CORNISH: Do you feel like there's enough support, enough resources for those who are fighting the fires?
WALKOM: I'd probably personally suggest there could be more. You know, we could definitely do with more aircraft, I think, you know, especially when we look at some of the fires in the mountains. And some of the areas are extremely difficult to get into, and those sorts of vehicles that can get in are small and limited in what they can do.
CORNISH: But I understand - are volunteer firefighters getting paid? I mean, it sounds like they would not be, that people...
CORNISH: ...Are putting forth their...
CORNISH: ...Own money for supplies. I mean, given the scale of what we have been seeing on the news, is that enough? I mean, should the government or companies be stepping up?
WALKOM: The government's just recently stepped up to offer volunteers some form of payment. My understanding is it's limited to showing a loss of income.
CORNISH: From your day jobs.
WALKOM: From our day jobs, which - you know, it's going to help people that have been fighting for months on end.
CORNISH: What is your day job? And what does your family think of what you're doing right now?
WALKOM: I'm a manager of a bunch of software engineers. I work from home, which has given me the flexibility to volunteer and to go away for some of these fires. You know, my family just wants me to come home, ultimately. They want me to be safe. They want me to go there and to be able to help communities and other people that are affected by that. You know, you do this because you don't have any other option. And so if something happens at your house, you want people to come and help you. So this is, I guess, a way of paying it forward and going out there and helping other people that are in really big need.
CORNISH: Mark Walkom, thank you so much for your time. And please stay safe.
WALKOM: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: That's Mark Walkom, volunteer firefighter in Dubbo in western New South Wales.
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