“Motivation comes from the desire to help others. The country needs it.”
The 2-man tanker careens down a country road, the firefighters on board completing vital reconnaissance to monitor conditions, assess fire damage, and begin the mammoth task of deciding where to focus their efforts. They are heading from town to town in NSW on Saturday 21 December, a day predicted to have catastrophic fire danger conditions, when something makes them stop.
A small, furry lump in the middle of the road gives the men pause to investigate. As Dean Symons, Sonder Duty Operations Manager and a firefighter with 20 years of experience, steps closer to the mass, he realises it is a possum. As he approaches the creature, it scurries towards him, an uncharacteristic display of trust that illustrates the terror the animal is feeling. It climbs Dean’s legs “like a tree” and settles into his cradling arms. The animal has suffered burns, and was desperate for somewhere to hide.
Dean and his colleagues are no strangers to distressing sights like these. He began volunteering with the Rural Fire Service in 2002, and worked as a Career Officer from 2003 to 2019, when he left to join Sonder. He still volunteers for the NSW RFS, as well as their Critical Incident Support Service, helping firefighters who are responding to crisis. Firefighters are tired, according to Dean, emotionally and physically, but they don’t give up. They don’t let the unprecedented danger prevent them from helping others. Dean hasn’t seen fires like this in 20 years. Fires are starting and spreading more quickly and erratically than ever.
The day started like many others this fire season, with a sense of nervousness, or, perhaps, a healthy respect for the reality of bushfires. “Fires are a part of any ecosystem” says Dean, who lives in Sydney’s south, an area that has recently been affected by fires. Even with the best weather forecasts and planning, firefighters still can’t be sure how a day will end. Dean’s wife and children all know their bushfire action plan, and what they will do if a fire threatened their home.
“Be prepared and stay up to date - know where to go and what to do if there is a fire. Have a bushfire survival plan.”
It’s hard to ignore when burnt leaves are blowing into your garden, and the now all too familiar smoky haze fills the horizon.
Dean emphasises that, in catastrophic conditions, there’s no guarantee firefighters can reach you in time. You have to be prepared to defend, with equipment, protective gear and the physical strength needed to combat the blaze as the fire hits. Not many people are prepared for this reality. If you aren’t sure, it’s better to leave early.
When a firefront passes through a community, sometimes authorities will shut off power, to help prevent the risk of damaged power lines causing more danger to responders. Communications can be affected, and even brought offline. The kind of fires that responders are facing on days like the 21 December are so intense that no Australian building standards can be guaranteed to withstand them. You may not be safe inside your house.
Dean manages the stress of this role by maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, but he’s not afraid to talk about the effect it’s had on him. While he finds it difficult to see animals and people in such dire circumstances, he and his colleagues are motivated by a sense of duty to his community. He is incredibly modest about the superhuman efforts (and resilience) of the firefighters, police, paramedics, defence personnel, utilities workers and volunteers have put in over the past weeks as Australia responds to the crisis.
The possum is bundled into a helmet, where it takes refuge under the straps. The firefighters drop it off to an animal shelter, where it can begin the road to recovery. The day continues, Dean and his colleagues taking calculated risks to protect properties, livestock and people.
Sonder’s Tips for Fire Safety
- Avoid areas of high fire danger rating or active fire. If you are planning to leave, leave early. Travel plans should be delayed if you will need to pass through an affected area.
- If you are planning to stay and defend, be prepared. Have access to a backup generator, protective clothing and sturdy boots. There is no guarantee a firetruck will be able to reach you if you call 000.
- Know where to get information. If you’re in NSW, download the Fires near me app for your smartphone. Find out what your local fire service website is and use it to stay informed. Twitter is also a good place for breaking news updates.
Dean is one of many Sonder employees who give their time to assist the community in times of crisis. We are privileged to work with so many people whose values align with Sonder’s mission to provide help to others when they need it, and confidence when they don’t.
Sonder would also like to pay respects to NSW firefighters Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, who lost their lives carrying out their duties to protect homes and lives from the bushfire crisis in Buxton. Support their families here.