Interview with Achmea Risk Specialist and firefighter Mark Vayro (Part 1)
We sat down with Risk Specialist and firefighter Mark Vayro to hear first-hand about his experience on the ground as a volunteer firefighter.
Passionate about keeping farmers farming in the Toowoomba, Lockyer and Southern Downs regions in Queensland, Mark was among the thousands of volunteer firefighters who put themselves on the front line of the fires this summer, risking their own lives to protect their communities.
With over 26 years’ experience as a dedicated firefighter, Mark was part of the largest ever deployment from Queensland to assist crews in other states. He has had two five-day deployments; the first deployment was near Tathra (NSW) in January and the second in Canberra (ACT) in February. As a crew leader, his responsibility was to keep his team and truck safe.
In this interview, Risk Specialist and firefighter Mark reflects on one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons. People are both mentally and physically exhausted, he says, and these are challenges that many people will face in the months and years ahead.
While fighting fires has been part of his life for nearly three decades, he says his wife is ‘the real superhero’.
A long bushfire season
“A lot of people impacted by the fires are emotionally stressed and physically exhausted. It is going to take a long time for everyone to recover, including those who have been at the forefront of the fires. We have not seen devastation on a scale like this, it really has been a long fire season.
As a firefighter, I know what it is like when you go to a house fire. I always say, ‘the eyes are the gateway to the soul’, and there is nothing more confronting than talking with someone who has lost everything and just looking into their eyes – it is full of emptiness. Being on the front-line, watching the destruction and seeing the impact on people is quite confronting.
I have been part of the fire service for many years and yes, it is a job but each one of those stories leaves a little battle scar.
I have been part of Strike Team Tango and Alpha Delta and as crew leader my responsibility was the safety of my truck and team.
During my second deployment in early February, we were hosted by the Royal Military College at Duntroon and I could not speak more highly of the Australian Defence Force. They truly extended as much privileges as they could while serving us breakfast, lunch, snack packs and dinners.
The hardest thing going on deployment is you are sleeping on stretcher beds in a room full of people with beds spaced less than one metre apart – everyone is constantly tossing and turning to get comfortable.
I am quite tall for these stretcher beds, so my feet overhang and my ankles get quite sore. You have people snoring and if you need to get up at night to go to the toilet, it is about a 35-metre walk past everyone.
After waking up at 5.30am, we would travel to the staging area about 15-20 minutes away. We would have breakfast with all the other crews, including personnel from other agencies and contractors to go through our brief together and get clarity on the tasks for the day.”
Conserving energy while fighting fires
“The area that our strike team was deployed to in early February was Corin Forest Mountain Resort. It is a very hilly area, so I continually had to go up and down a steep hill with this very heavy hose. It really is hard work and high impact.
Firefighting is strenuous on the body. Your heartrate just seems to be constantly elevated, which is not surprising when you add in the complications of heat and emotional stress, especially when you watch assets burn right in front of you.
You are constantly in the heat and smoke yet somehow you must try to conserve some energy because you don’t know what else could be just around the corner.
Strangely you do get used to the smoke and the smell of fire. It is around you all the time. But it is like working in a heater, the ambient air temperature is extremely high. There is no doubt about it – it is dangerous.”
“One of the biggest risks I see is complacency”
“In my 26 years of fighting fires, I can honestly say that the duration of this fire season has been so much longer than what we usually see, and they are also starting earlier. Normally you have a fire season of two or at worst three months, not starting in winter and going through to summer.
It is great to see all this rain, particularly to help break this prolonged drought. Unfortunately – when you look at the glass half empty – we are only several months away from the next fire season.
Fires will always be a part of our landscape. Floods will always be part of our landscape. Great fires are broken by great floods, and then great floods are broken by great drought. It is a vicious cycle.
Complacency between those two cycles is a real risk to our communities.
What tends to happen is that people leave it until the last moment to prepare, or when it is too late, when it is already here.
It was the same with the floods which we had in 2011 and 2013, and now they are here again.
Because the fires and their behaviour have been so unpredictable and unprecedented, preparation is of paramount importance.
As firefighters, in our minds, we had pictured a lot of this already. We saw the behaviour of some of the fires earlier in the season, we saw the ramifications of it continuing to dry up and the wind picking up. But the hardest is that it is one thing to visualise these fires as a picture in your mind, and another to have something like this happen right in front of you and being not able to do what you think you can do, because it is simply too dangerous. There is only so much you can do when the fires are out of control.”
‘My wife is the real superhero, not me’
“The bushfire season also has been a tough time for my family. My daughter had a medical emergency the first time I was on deployment fighting the fires near Bega in NSW. She was admitted to hospital after she suffered an allergic reaction on farm. She was in hospital for quite a while. My poor wife didn’t have her husband and couldn’t contact me because of the poor mobile service.
Everything I do, I can’t do it without that one key supporter: my wife. Yes, I might be the person that goes that fights the fires, but each and every person sitting behind me, particularly my wife and kids, is out there fighting the fire with me.
And farm works never stops. When I wasn’t home, and the cows were playing up – we had cows going missing – my wife and the kids all had to try and sort those issues out.
With school back on, trying to work part-time, manage kids – all that extra burden goes on to the family.
When I was out fighting fires, there was a lot of extra work to do for them as well.
When you go on deployment, you try and get as much done as possible before you go. And then when you come back you play catch up, so you don’t really get to rest at all.
My wife is the real superhero, not me.”
Stay tuned for our follow-up interview with Achmea Risk Specialist Mark Vayro.
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