Australia’s Volunteer Firefighters Are Heroes. But Are They Enough?

BATLOW, Australia — Most of the fires Michael Blenkins has put out since becoming a volunteer firefighter in the 1980s required little more than rushing to a nearby farm and hosing down ankle-high flames. In and out in maybe an hour, then back to work as a teacher.

When he persuaded his eldest son, Edmund, to join the rural fire brigade at 16, he thought less about danger than camaraderie.

But in Australia, climate change and the huge fires it fuels have obliterated the old normal. Instead of the usual three or four days a year, the Blenkinses have been fighting fires around their mountain town, Batlow, on and off for a month. They have repeatedly put in 12-hour days. And the danger has been immense: On Jan. 4, they nearly died in a firestorm.

“There were flames kicking up everywhere,” Mr. Blenkins, a formal man with an even manner, said one recent day, a dress shirt peeking out from under his firefighter gear. “It was like the Titanic — we thought we were prepared to handle it, and we weren’t.”

For more than a century, Australia has managed the landscape by drawing on the altruism and kinship of its people. In challenging terrain colonized after the United States, it was not the mythical cowboy who tamed the Australian frontier; it was the egalitarian collective, farmers working together to protect the land, with fire as the primary threat.

That culture of shared responsibility across a sparsely populated continent still holds. Even on the worst fire days this season, around 90 percent of the firefighters battling blazes have been volunteers like Michael and Edmund Blenkins, a ratio unmatched in any other developed country where wildfires rage.

But their agonizing efforts reveal more than just the help-thy-neighbor bravery that has won Australia’s volunteers global acclaim. Their experience also points to the risks, tensions and burdens of a new bush-fire era. Fire experts describe what’s happening as a new phenomenon, which the country is confronting with a firefighting strategy from the past.

Climate change has made an arid nation even more combustible and deadly. Today’s blazes are monstrous omnivores that have charged through more than 43 million acres of forests, small towns and coastal suburbs since July, according to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, with around 100 fires still burning.

“I can imagine no system that could handle as many fires, and as intense fires, over such a breadth of country as Australia has faced this long, long season,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University. But, he added, “the brigades were designed for a different time and set of conditions.”

The toll on firefighters is mounting: On Jan. 23, three American crew members were killed when their firefighting plane crashed in the Snowy Mountains; 11 firefighters in all have died this season. And climate scientists predict that future years may be even worse.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised that Australia will adapt to the threat through technological change, but he has ruled out moving away from fossil fuels or sharply reducing the country’s emissions. Instead, after being sharply criticized for a delayed response, he has preferred to work around the edges of the problem, with more money for aerial firefighting and calls for investigations into bush-fire management.

Many firefighters are now demanding a more ambitious re-evaluation. Some want compensation and professional training. Others want better equipment and more help with preventive burning of undergrowth, along with tougher building standards, and maybe even a carbon tax that would raise money to bolster firefighting and reconstruction.

What they agree on is that something has changed. A few days of firefighting have turned into weeks and months, and with summer not over until March, the work is not yet done.

Batlow is typical of the towns contending with the new conditions, if a bit better off. Unlike many of its rural peers, the apple and logging town of 1,300 people has a growing population. Its fire brigade has about 30 members, including a half-dozen younger recruits like Edmund Blenkins, who are rare finds in shriveling towns where most firefighters are over 60.

The brigade’s equipment is also much improved. On a recent afternoon, Bob Bowman, 82, a former president of the brigade, flipped through a soft blue notebook holding minutes from its first meetings in 1944.

“At first, you just showed up with what you had,” he said.

Now the brigade has two small trucks and a Class 1 tanker that can pump out 400 gallons of water per minute. With the heat of recent fires, parts of that off-road beast are now melted and deformed.

In its first three years in service, before this season’s fires, the truck’s pump registered 36 hours of use. In mid-January, the gauge showed 88.

“We are all seeing firsthand the incredible risk of massive fires, with their ability to take out cities, thousands of homes and damn near an entire country,” said Frank Lima, a vice president with the International Association of Fire Fighters. “With so much on the line at all times everywhere, relying on volunteer firefighters — as brave as they may be — is still a tremendous risk.”

On a national scale, firefighting veterans worry about a lack of consistent quality and training. There is no annual physical fitness or emergency driving test for volunteer firefighters. Some brigade leaders have been known to hesitate because they are not sure the people on the truck can handle an aggressive fire.

Firefighters in the area where the Americans died on Thursday also complained that middle managers had been too quick to downgrade fire threat levels, leading to greater risks when the blazes resurge.

For individual firefighters, the pressure to accept it all quietly, to be the stoic hero, can be overwhelming. Volunteers must balance the fires with work and family. There can even be pressure from neighbors for special treatment, and complaints if their homes are not saved.

Then there is the firefighters’ own property, which they often leave behind to save others’.

More than a week after the terrible fires swept Batlow on Jan. 4, the Blenkins family still had not moved back into the rambling white ranch they call Grand Oak. It lost power and barely escaped total destruction, with blackened grass stopping just a few feet from the walls.

One evening, after a full day putting out spot fires, Mr. Blenkins and his son, along with the rest of the family, worked until dark trying to protect their property from another bad stretch of heat and winds.

Edmund Blenkins, 19, used a tractor to push away charred debris near the burned and buckled shed holding his father’s destroyed 1959 Vauxhall. Michael Blenkins, 49, and his younger son, Atticus, 14, pulled trees and branches away from the house’s deck.

“I’m just doing it again,” Mr. Blenkins said. “I did this a few days ago.”

His eyes drooped with exhaustion. After giving up a government job in the late 1990s, he had become a high school teacher, principal and, eventually, president of the fire brigade. When it was time to flee the fires the first time, his wife grabbed a painting of the family. Michael took ties, dress shirts and a suit.

Edmund Blenkins, an electrical apprentice at a local timber mill, carried himself like a soldier, competent beyond his years. He also harbored more anger than polite company would welcome.

“I’m worried about him,” said his mother, Sulari Gentill, a novelist originally from Sri Lanka who moved to Australia when she was 6. “He’s so young to be dealing with this.”

Then she shared what her husband and son had hesitated to divulge: On Jan. 4, they had thought they were going to die.

It was just after 2 p.m. when the fires starting tossing embers and the wind began to whirl. Calls for help shifted from the hills to town as Roger Watkins, the apple farmer behind the wheel of the tanker truck that carried the Blenkinses, sped into the burning epicenter.

“This is it, boys,” Mr. Watkins said when they reached the eastern side of Batlow, where several homes were ablaze. “Group hug.”

Grass and house fires were coming from every direction. For hours, they controlled one fire, then raced to another. At one point, feeling trapped, Michael Blenkins jumped to the back of the truck. He pulled the hose from the center of the vehicle, where he normally stood, so he could be next to his son when the end came.

“It was like having a cage of fire all around you,” Mr. Blenkins said. “We couldn’t leave — we were the only ones there.”

Most of the crews from nearby towns had already left. As volunteers, the brigades deploy themselves. Some believed their own communities were threatened by fires; others panicked or thought Batlow could not be saved.

The Blenkinses’ crew escaped several close calls, then continued fighting fires until 3 a.m., with the last house sending off the rank odor of asbestos.

It was all a sign of Australia’s volunteer system being tested by new extremes.

Volunteers all over Australia quietly admit in interviews that they have felt at times as if they were fighting against hell all alone. Pay, they say, matters less than training, competence and candor about what they are facing, not just now but in the future.

“We’ll be fighting these fires for months,” Edmund Blenkins said. “If it’s not here, it will be somewhere else. And then there will be more.”

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting from Sydney, Australia.