October 1 2018
October 1st marks the traditional start of the firefighting season in NSW, Australia. Yet, this year, approximately ¼ of the 45 fire districts started their fire season 2 months early. As climate impacts begin to manifest ever more clearly around the world, the dry conditions and the devastating fires that follow are a real lived impact for communities and individuals all over Australia.
The statistics demonstrate how serious of an issue this is becoming. Between 1851 and 2000 there were 33 major bushfires in Australia. Between 2001 and 2018 there have been 35 major bushfires in Australia. In the last 17 years there have been more major bushfires than the 150 years before that.
Jeff Walsh has seen this first hand during his career with the Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW). Jeff is a 25 year veteran of the service and he has seen pretty much everything. He’s fought fires high up on the ladders. He’s trained in rescue, has worked in the hazardous materials logistical centre and now works in communications. Jeff and his colleagues, some of whom have been in the service for 50 years, all agree that the fires are getting bigger.
When a friend, Cass Hodge, lent him a camera for a trip, Jeff became interested in digital photography, bought his own camera and started documenting the fires. Now Cass and Jeff run Quarrie Photography, specialising in Emergency Services imagery.
Naturally, Jeff’s life experience put him in a perfect place to get unique imagery and it was his images of walls of flame with firefighters that first drew our attention to his work. Through further conversation we discovered the personal project that he and Cass are working on now, Humans of Fire Fighting (HOFF).
They knew that there was more to firefighting than walls of flame and that the real story was in the people. There are approximately 73000 volunteers and 8000 paid staff in NSW alone - that’s a lot of stories. They started talking to firefighters and documenting their stories and HOFF was born. Their work takes them around NSW and they have compiled a Facebook page with their interviews and images.
Their project is an excellent illustration of the core Climate Visuals principle to include ‘real people’ in climate imagery. They have discovered that even if they have a dramatic image from a fire scene, one that really captures the scene, it still doesn’t travel as well as their portrait images. The community of firefighters, or the ‘brotherhood’ as they call it, is tight and people are eager to support, learn about and celebrate other individuals. Therefore these portraits are shared again and again. Their reach eclipses the more generic images of firefighters in action and Jeff and Cass have managed to really tap into the human element.
It is a very timely project. As fire danger increases it raises the question of where we will find the human capacity to adapt. Projects that tell the stories of the people behind the fire fighting and the increased fire danger from climate change are important. They are human stories of a changing climate, and that is what counts.