Most of the fires Shaun Washington has attended since becoming a volunteer firefighter, required little more than rushing to a nearby farm and hosing down knee-high flames. Growing up in the Northern Territory, Shaun describes his childhood as a typical NT upbringing. Weekends revolved around fishing, being outdoors and lots of time being spent at the local fire station.
“It’s how I grew up,” Shaun asserts when asked about why he volunteers, at this point I get a glimpse of his happy-go-lucky nature, “Dad has volunteered his entire life to the NT Fire Rescue Service, I started when I was 13 and I haven’t stopped yet.”
Now living on the outskirts of Nowra in NSW, Shaun divides his time between studying medicine at the University of Wollongong, working part-time and volunteering when he can with the NSW Rural Fire Service. It’s evident from Shaun’s recent experience that his time over the 2019/20 summer was not divided equally, with volunteering taking up the majority and leaving behind only a few hours of sleep in between.
Within hours of completing his end of phase med exams, Shaun found himself fighting fires within the Shoalhaven area. Little did he know, the fires would continue for the entire uni break. The long, dangerous and stressful days were just the beginning. November 28th was one such day when a tree fell within centimeters of him on the fire ground.
“Well, wow it was close,” Shaun recollects, as the shock still lingers weeks later, “we prepare for it and we train for it but at the end of the day, it’s just the nature of the game.”
Shaun spent his summer filling many roles within the RFS, from door knocking right through to crew leading. At times, the decision of houses to save and the ones to sacrifice fell within Shaun’s sphere of responsibilities. Shaun recalls his thought process at the time as a “conscious and rational one with a clear-cut objective, that being, save what you can with the limited resources you have.”
As a volunteer firefighter, Shaun can see and hear the fire approach, he endures the heat and smoke when the fire hits, but rarely will he see the personal devastation that the fire causes afterwards. His first encounter with the human devastation occured when a man who he describes as “looking disheveled, tired and mentally drained”, stood in front of him at a local plumbing shop.
“I borrowed a water pump about a week ago, I’m sorry but it’s gone. The pump, the tank, the house, the shed, everything, it’s all gone.”, pained with the loss, he grieved with a heavy heart. The sales assistant is polite in his response insisting and ensuring assistance at all levels. At this point, Shaun gets talking with the exhausted man, asking the location of his property and immediately making the connection.
Shaun knows the area, he knows the road and the property. The disheveled man appears as such because of the decision Shaun made on an early morning in January. “We knew this road was going to be hit hard, so we had to make the call and the house just couldn’t be saved.” Seeing the personal devastation caused by his own decision brings Shaun close to tears when relaying the story back.
“It’s an important skill to have, to balance your rational and emotional thought process. Of course, I go home and reflect but during work and at that very moment I am trying to logically determine the best course of action.” Shaun compares the balance, to that of the medical profession and states, “being able to balance your emotions in order to make appropriate judgments is necessary.”
As the weeks went by Shaun faced immense danger, coming up against 40m flame fronts, some stretching more than 20kms in length. He described the worst days as being frantically busy, under resourced and physically and emotionally challenging.
As the summer draws to a close, Shaun doesn’t show signs of slowing down, instead, jumping straight back into uni with his textbooks in one hand and his RFS pager in the other.
Shaun Washington - University of Wollongong Medical Student
- If you or someone you know is experiencing health concerns or mental health issues caused by the Australian bush fires, seek support by talking to your general practitioner or regular health care provider.
Published: 17 Feb 2020