Tele: Firey’s guilt – I saved 13 lives but couldn’t save my own family

The number of RFS members needing counselling has doubled in the aftermath of last year’s Black Summer bushfires, with volunteers suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Thousands of traumatised firefighters have needed counselling to process the horrors of last year’s Black Summer bushfires, with ­demand for mental health support doubling.

About 3300 Rural Fire Service members needed counselling last financial year as bushfires tore across the state, destroying thousands of properties and killing 25 ­people between October 2019 and March 2020.

To deal with the huge ­demand, the RFS — the largest volunteer fire service in the world — has advertised 17 positions for psychologists, which will be permanently embedded in every command around the state.

This week marked the ­anniversaries of the most devastating periods of the 2019-20 bushfire season, including the south coast fires and deaths of RFS volunteers.

For many firefighters and communities, the anniver­saries were a bitter reminder of the loss and destruction, and survivor’s guilt surfaced.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Nathan Barnden, 27, fought bushfires on the south coast, including the deadly blaze that tore through the historic villages of Quaama and ­Cobargo. The RFS Jellat Brigade senior deputy captain saved the lives of 13 people during the bushfires.

Among them was Jessica Gravener, her young children and their grandmother. 

Mr Barnden and RFS volunteer John Gallagher pulled the family from their burning Quaama home, packed them into a Hyundai and sped through a wall of flames in a remarkable act of bravery.

But it is the people he couldn’t save, his own family, that haunts him.

While Mr Barnden was­ ­defending Quaama and the surrounding area, his uncle Robert Salway and cousin Patrick Salway died fighting a fire on their property about 20km away in Wandella.

Like many firefighters, Mr Barnden is burdened by the “what ifs”.

What if he closed the highway 40 minutes earlier and stopped his cousin Patrick from getting home after helping a mate defend a property at Bemboka a day earlier?

What if he went to help his family fight the fire at Wandella rather than risking his life for people he didn’t know?

“In the early stages I struggled with it … it didn’t matter that I saved 13 people,” he said, his voice cracking.

“It is a significant element of survivor’s guilt where I felt I shouldn’t have been firefighting and I should have been out with my family on their property, helping them.

“Ask any firefighter and they’ll always say ‘I could have saved one more house or done a little bit more’.

“That extra bit happened to be my own family.”

The RFS member of 12 years struggled to articulate this torment to his immediate family, including his father, who is the captain of their RFS brigade at Jellat.

That feeling of failure overpowered the praise and gratitude from the community.

“Imagine you’ve devoted your whole life to saving ­people and you couldn’t save your own family,” Mr Barnden said.

In the three months that followed, Mr Barnden immersed himself in fighting the fires. The only breaks he took were to attend funerals or memorials. It served as a distraction to the untreated trauma and grief that was bubbling beneath the surface.

But when he returned home to Canberra, the nightmares and insomnia started.

Suspecting he was experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr Barnden asked for help.

“I would have rather fought that fire every day than go through the things I did in the mental health space,” Mr Barnden said.

“The biggest thing was getting professional help, seeing psychologists and counsellors and really talking it through.”

On December 25, Mr Barnden received a text message and a photograph from the grandmother he had saved almost a year earlier.

The photo showed the woman’s grandchildren playing with toys Santa had brought them.

“She said: ‘We still get to have this day as a family and I have six grandchildren and you saved five of them’,” Mr Barnden recalled.

“Over time I’m grateful for the lives saved. I get to see them have a life and it makes it all worth it.”

As he rode the emotional rollercoaster last year, Mr Barnden reckons he quit the RFS “about 36 times”.

But every time the pager went off beckoning his brigade to another emergency, Mr Barnden, who now works as an RFS community engagement officer, couldn’t help himself.

“The passion is there and I want to help people,” he said.

Greg Mullins, a former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner and current RFS volunteer, fought the fires at Batemans Bay on New Year’s Eve 2019.

He saw things he wished he hadn’t, and found New Year’s Eve this year, the anniversary of the fires, particularly challenging.

His own PTSD experience has helped him support other volunteers, but he said the ­social isolation brought on by COVID-19 had exacerbated mental health issues for some.

“With my RFS brigade, the biggest thing is the social ­interaction and being able to talk,” Mr Mullins said.

“That lack of interaction has been tough for a lot of people, particularly for newer fire fighters who still aren’t sure what they saw and ­experienced.

“They ask if it has always been like that and I tell them ‘no, you just experienced a season that was unprecedented’.” The feeling of not doing enough is something many firefighters grappled with, Mr Mullins explained.

“It is the ‘what if’ and the ‘what only’ that brings people undone,” he said.

“You have to work through with people and say you did everything you possibly could do.”

The RFS agrees the pandemic has slowed down plans for more face-to-face counselling for struggling firefighters. Instead, there has been a greater reliance on phone-based services.

But the service will soon begin the rollout of 17 specialists, including 15 psychologists, an occupational health specialist and a manager of mental health services, around the state.

On the back of $16 million in government funding for mental health personnel, the plan is to have a psychologist based at every area command, including Coffs Harbour, Albury, Cowra and Tamworth, within three years. They will work with critical incident support officers daily and offer that next level of clinical support to ­volunteers.

The allocation follows a recommendation from the NSW bushfire inquiry that the RFS have its own mental health support.

“With a season like we saw last year, the demand has continued to grow for peer support services, so this a good thing,” RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd said.

“There is no doubt some members will currently be seeking treatment.”

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