In a country well known for colourful characters, Maggie McKinney still stands out as she shepherds her crew of volunteer firefighters in one of the areas hardest hit by Australia’s ferocious bushfires.
Once a professional performer who sang backing vocals for British rock star Joe Cocker, McKinney has spent the last 30 years helping battle the wildfires which are as much an Australian summer staple as cricket and backyard barbecues.
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But this year the fire crisis was unprecedented, and deadly, fuelled by years of drought and record-high temperatures linked to climate change.
Since the fires began far earlier than usual in September, 29 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes and 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest and bushland burned.
“Thirty years I’ve been in the service, it has never been this bad,” McKinney, 70, told AFP from her Rural Fire Service station in the town of Bermagui on Australia’s southeast coast.
The coastal regions of southern New South Wales state and neighbouring Victoria saw some of the worst fires in early January, with thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers forced to flee.
McKinney explained how four different fires in national parks around Bermagui merged into a single inferno threatening the town.
Between walkie-talkie exchanges with her crews on the ground, McKinney points on a large wall map to where they are still working to contain that blaze.
“There’s still fire out there,” she says.
– ‘Something’s changing’ –
McKinney used to perform with her own bands and it is clear she views her fire crew volunteers as the same sort of tight-knit unit, bonded together as they fight to save neighbours’ homes even when their own are threatened by flames.
“When there’s firefighters out there fighting fires and they lose their own homes — it is a family, you feel something out there, you feel something in here,” she said, tapping her chest.
“It’s a wonderful thing actually in a way that we relate to each other… in this brigade. I just love ’em,” she says, wiping away a tear in a moment of emotion that shows her exhaustion after 19 straight days of work and contrasts with her usual gregarious and wise-cracking style.
McKinney also gets serious when asked about the role of climate change in fuelling the worsening bushfire seasons, and the conservative government’s refusal to take significant steps to lower the country’s carbon footprint.
“There can be political attitudes about climate change — but something’s changing, it’s never been like this,” she said.
“People are angry (at the) lack of leadership, there seems to be a perceived bubble that the prime minister lives in.”
Volunteers like McKinney and her 17-person crew have formed the backbone of Australia’s bushfire fighting force since 1896 — when the first volunteer brigade was founded in New South Wales.
The service relies on amateurs because hiring professional staff year-round across a vast landmass would be prohibitively expensive and, for most of the year, unnecessary.
But shrinking rural communities, an ageing population and the prospect of longer and more intense fire seasons are all straining the volunteer model.
To help fight this year’s fires, the government ordered the biggest peacetime call-up of military reserves in the country’s history, adding 3,000 men and women to the firefighting effort.