Allan Haddad always dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a firefighter.
But the 23-year-old from New South Wales had no idea the start of his career would be defined by one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons in living memory – the 2019-20 Black Summer blazes.
“I still remember, I was at my aunty’s house. We were having a big family lunch and there was a news thing that came up – it was a catastrophic fire danger day and it was starting to kick off in the Blue Mountains [National Park],” he told SBS News.
“So I rushed down there and it was pretty much lights and sirens straight to the Blue Mountains, [through] all the smoke and flames and everything like that.”
Allan said every summer there’s usually “one, two, or three bad days where it’s all hands on deck”.
“But that was the first day of a three-month onslaught of just non-stop commitment from Fire and Rescue NSW and the Rural Fire Service,” he said.
That summer, Allan said he spent more time on the back of a fire truck than in his own bed, volunteering for extra shifts whenever he could to help keep the community safe.
“It was literally three months of carnage,” he said.
Mohammed Haddad, Allan’s father and a 25-year veteran of NSW Fire and Rescue, said he has never seen anything like the Black Summer fires – and he hopes he never will again.
From June 2019 until May 2020, more than 18 million hectares of Australian land was ravaged, with fires breaking out in every state and territory.
The fire season destroyed more than 3,000 homes and directly killed 34 people – including nine firefighters – and countless animals.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for me personally, and even being in the job for so long, it’s unforgettable,” Mohammed said.
“At the time, we were probably exhausted more than anything, because it was just relentless – every day, 24/7, fires, fires, fires.
“We’d be off duty and they’d be ringing us up to come in. And obviously as a first responder, or in our case, firefighters, we never say no.”
‘Running on adrenaline’
It’s only now, some 18 months later, the pair are truly grappling with how intense the fire season was.
“I don’t think even I fully appreciated what a season it was until now, looking back on it, for the pure fact you’re running on adrenaline,” Allan said.
“You take it home, and you think about it, because when people call us, they’re having a pretty bad day, usually.”
Mohammed said one of the hardest parts of that season was witnessing the grief of those who had lost everything.
“They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost their cattle, they’ve lost their crops, they’ve lost just day-to-day things that we all take for granted. That was the hardest thing,” he said.
“A lot of people have had a lifetime of memories, they’ve had a property that they’ve built that’s passed on through generations, even simple things like photos, [destroyed].”
Supporting first responders
Afghanistan veteran John Bale set up charity Fortem Australia two years ago to offer mental health and wellbeing support to first responders and their families.
Mr Bale and his team also spearheaded Thank a First Responder Day, which is being marked this year on Wednesday.
Now in its second year, the day is all about stopping to recognise the frontline workers who have steered Australia through fires, floods and COVID-19.
“During a major trauma, [we are focused] on the fire, the flood, or whatever it is, not on the first responder, and then we all move on with our lives,” Mr Bale said.
“This is an opportunity to stop, pause and thank these first responders and their families for what they do, or what they’re willing to do, for us on a daily basis.”
The day is also about recognising the mental health toll witnessing daily traumas can have on people.
Often, Mr Bale said, first responders find it easier to help others than to accept help themselves.
“There is self-stigma saying, ‘I don’t need the support, because someone else needs it more’, or ‘because I chose to do this, therefore I am strong and I do not need the support’,” he said.
“Often, because of the way that they’re trained and the way that the human body works, trauma doesn’t seem to have a major impact until months and potentially years afterwards.
“[We need to make sure] they can connect with each other – because really, they’re the only ones who can understand what they’re going through as they’ve been through shared experiences – support each other, and find those early warning signs that they’re not going as well as they could, and seek out that clinical support.”
‘You have to be alert’
Allan and Mohammed’s duty commander at NSW Fire and Rescue, Christopher Wilson, said team leaders are wary of the mental health impacts a season like the Black Summer can have on firefighters even a year and a half later.
“I’m sure people are dealing with it now even, these issues can be long-lasting,” he said.
“You just have to be alert for some of the signs and just try to offer support to those people where you can.
“We work as a team, we’re basically living together most of the time, and it’s like a family, so we try to support each other as best as we can.”
Both Allan and Mohammed said it was the sense of camaraderie that helped them through the horrific bushfire season.
“This is a family away from home, and I see myself as a lucky person in the sense that I’ve got two families,” Mohammed said.
“Once you put on the uniform, we’re all the same, and everyone’s there to support you and assist you,” Allan added.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.