Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer truck driver Robynne Murphy has been on the bushfire frontline since November on behalf of her local community on the NSW south coast.
Murphy is a former steel worker, life-long unionist and film maker. Footage of her on Channel 7 demanding that PM Scott Morrison “Stand down now!” in January went viral. Below is an excerpt of an interview she gave to Green Left on February 7.
I’ve been permanently affected from the last few months of firefighting. It’s a steep learning curve coming up against a huge fire like those we experienced in November, December and January. It’s been devastating to see death and destruction, to see fireballs coming towards you.
But there are positives, including the widespread acknowledgment that the volunteers did a good job. But there’s been a lot of angst and anger and questioning.
Prior to the Currowan fire, there was a fire in Nelligen where I live. When the Currowan fire was approaching our area, many volunteers had to stop firefighting and defend their own properties. We tried to make it clear to residents that we couldn’t go to everybody. There are about 500 people in the local community and we only have two trucks!
However, being in the RFS means we had access to trucks from outside our area. On New Year’s Eve, just before the firestorm came, we had three firefighters in one truck on the ground. Luckily, about a dozen fire and rescue trucks from the northern suburbs of Sydney arrived just in time. We thought we would lose all the houses in Nelligen, but we didn’t.
I’ve seen some amazing fires, but they didn’t come close to this one. RFS officials and ex-RFS officials have all said the fires’ intensity are the result of climate change. There was a massive fuel load on the ground, there had been no rain for months and the drought had been going on longer.
Some people have said more hazard reduction would have mitigated this fire. I don’t believe that. When the majority of RFS people assess this fire, its rate and depth and the velocity of the wind conditions, they realise that even if we’d done all the hazard reductions it wouldn’t have stopped it.
There was no stopping this fire: it took 9 days to go 11 kilometres from the west of Nelligen and just 9 minutes to go the other 11 kilometres into Batemans Bay. It had gathered up so much force, it was like a freight train. We were lucky there were no deaths in our area.
I meant it when I said on TV that Morrison should stand down. I want this government brought down because they have no solutions: it will give handouts to various aid organisations, NGOs, councils, state governments and water catchment organisations but we need more than that: we need a nationally-coordinated solution which addresses the real causes of climate change.
I’m skeptical about another royal commission on the fires: we’ve already had some and their recommendations have not been followed. Unless climate change is addressed, any new inquiry will lead to more handouts to various government departments and businesses but it won’t help communities and habitat that have been devastated by these fires.
There is a lot of anger and division in the community because everyone is hurting badly and we are not getting the help we need. Governments have to focus on community input and community solutions.
I have not ever been in a war, but it’s like being in a war zone. Everything is destroyed and black, with a few exceptions. The farms in the outlying areas of Nelligen have all been lost. The cattle and horses have mostly died. All the fences and the apparatus associated with farming have been burnt.
Our habitat, weather and water security have changed permanently. But is this what we are being asked to see as the “new normal”? If these fires are the new normal we will run out of water up and down the coast. There won’t be enough to put out the fires, which is very scary.
If we want to stop climate change, we have to stop the main emitters of carbon pollution. I used to work at Blue Scope Steel: it emits 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. I’ve been an advocate for steel because it’s 100% recyclable. But do we really need it? We have to start asking if we can get by without it, or make it in a different way? Do we really need to mine? We have to ask, would our lives be better if we lowered emissions?
Other countries have stopped mining coal. Why can’t we? We can still provide jobs in the renewable energy industries — solar, wind and hydro — for those displaced from the fossil fuel sector.
This government is not going to budge, so we have to change it. I would like to see massive mobilisations around the country. The summer climate rallies have been great, but we need a bigger collaboration between climate change activists, farmers and regional communities campaigning for water to all come together.