John Duffy has been an active member of the Penrose Rural Fire Service (RFS) for the last eight years and experienced the Black Summer Fires. During his firsthand experience of the fires, he noticed some key things about trauma – in that it is often minimised, and in some cases, its existence denied.
For John, his anxiety was so real it felt like two clenched fists in his chest “hanging onto a sense of self”.
For almost two months in late 2019 and early 2020 John, as part of the Penrose RFS crew, spent week after week fighting the Green Wattle and Morton fires in places like Yanderra, The Oaks, Wingello and their own village of Penrose.
Once the fires stopped, the physical sensation that John felt inside was far from extinguished. This feeling was so acute that he needed medical advice.
After the fires John sought treatment and support for the anxiety he was suffering, and in 2022 attended the Quest for Life Foundation’s Moving Beyond Trauma program in Bundanoon to help work through the ongoing anxiety and lingering trauma.
“It was so present in my life that when it started to ease, I could feel it leaving – I could feel the place where it used to live,” John said.
John’s experience of the Black Summer bushfires
While at Wingello the Penrose RFS came face-to-face with a firestorm.
“I now know what it’s like to have a fire coming at you. You hear something like a freight train off in the distance, a roaring sound.”
“One or two embers start falling on the ground and you start putting out those embers with the hose; then more embers are coming down, one every ten seconds. A minute later, it’s fifty embers every ten seconds… you quickly get to the point where you can’t put out those embers.”
“What I saw was a glow on the ground coming from one direction, then it crowned in the trees and just skipped through the top of those trees, so fast. Then the wind picked up and hit us, and we started property protection.”
“Then it just sort of went timeless. It felt like it went by in ten minutes but also for hours and hours, I still don’t know for sure the timing of it all.”
The wind was strong, the smoke and embers were thick, and John had to get down on his hands and knees to get as close to the ground as possible in order to breathe.
“At one point we were standing behind a house with a hose, the nozzle off. I’d quickly run around the corner to hose the house and bushes that were alight, then run back behind the house for refuge and to breathe.”
At Wingello, the brigade saved homes, but John says it was more like the homes saved them.
“They were the only thing protecting us when the firestorm came in.”
Trauma from the sustained intensity of natural disasters
For John, although the fires themselves were traumatic, he says the biggest impact on his wellbeing was not being able to switch off due to the length of the emergency.
“Wingello was bad, but it was the intensity of just not switching off for six or seven weeks that totally fried my nervous system. We’d be out on the truck for twelve or more hours, then when we got back to the shed, I found I continued to be hypervigilant and not able to get any respite.”
“First, we went out of area, up around Yanderra and around the back of Warragamba Dam where the fires were burning north of us in Penrose. Then we were told to back off of that fire and get back to our own village to get ready for the Wattle Creek fires coming from the south.”
“One evening, after a 12-hour shift on the truck, we were on our way to fuel up when we got a call that a backburn had flared up and had spread to Penrose village. We were among the first on the scene, luckily only a few fences were lost and some property damage, but no homes were lost.”
“The intensity of the fire season was never-ending; it was just day after day after day. My family evacuated multiple times which was pretty terrifying.”
In recent months John has been able to relate to the intensity experienced by other Australians, including people in the NSW Northern Rivers region who dealt with two catastrophic floods this year, and people on the NSW south coast and Victoria around Echuca who recently rushed to build a flood levy.
“Again, it’s the intensity of these situations. The people in the floods in Lismore, they were just in it the whole time, and the people on the tractors down south building that levy. There’s just a certain intensity where people don’t get to switch off, they get stuck in ‘on’ mode. That’s the trauma that I see happening.”
Post-Traumatic recovery after natural disaster
“The thing that got me to Quest was hearing Brendon from Balmoral RFS talking on a documentary. He mentioned the hypervigilance you can get after not being able to switch off, and I just thought, ‘wow, that’s what I’ve been doing this whole time’. I’d been in such a heightened state for such a long time, it was then that I made the decision to go to Quest.”
When asked how his recovery is going almost three years on from the fires, John says he’s still on the journey.
“It’s post-traumatic recovery, there’s no quick fix. It’s about self-care, self-nurturing, and being educated around what trauma is and how it manifests in my life and in my body.
Had I not gone to Quest I probably would have just struggled on. I saw it as a powerful choice, I just knew I had to do it.
I believe Petrea and her team bring great value to help people understand, and become equipped to heal, their trauma. I also see Quest having an important role to play in educating organisations to better understand and spot the signs of trauma.
So many others did so much more than I did. There’s no rhyme or reason about who walks away with trauma, or any timetable for when the signs and symptoms may appear.
For some, there seems to be a stigma around talking about trauma or admitting that you are affected. By sharing my story, I’m hoping to remove some of this stigma.”
Help Australian people and communities heal from trauma
The Quest for Life Foundation helps people living with the consequences of trauma, illness and natural disasters to find hope, healing and peace.
We provide educational self-help programs in Bundanoon and community-based workshops around Australia that encourage, educate and empower people to improve their resilience and peace of mind during difficult times. People reach out to us for help during their most challenging times, whether that hardship is caused by physical or mental illness, domestic or family violence, financial strain, grief, trauma or natural disaster.
As a charity, we rely on income from donations from people like you to subsidise the cost of attendance at our residential programs and to facilitate our free community outreach workshops in regional communities.
By donating to Quest, you’re helping other people grow through their biggest challenges. This, in turn, ripples out to create a more compassionate society that supports and encourages each of its members.
Your donation will help people on limited incomes, people doing it touch, or people in need of respite after a natural disaster by helping to cover the cost of their attendance at one of our programs. Donations will also be used to deliver more community workshops in regional areas for those who can’t travel to Bundanoon. Help more people to have a brighter future.
Thank you for your consideration and support.