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21-hour work days ‘new normal’ for RFS volunteers

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

The 21-hour working day has become the “new normality” for many NSW RFS volunteers amid the devastation caused by the bushfire crisis.

Exclusive: The 21-hour working day has become the "new normality" for many NSW RFS volunteers amid the devastation caused by the bushfire crisis.

Braidwood is a small rural town in NSW's Southern Tablelands, sandwiched between fires and covered in a dark cloak of smoke.

Locals say that the community has been a "ghost town" since the North Black Range fire to the west of Braidwood first posed a threat in November last year.

Then followed the terrifying Currowan fire, described as a "300,000-hectare inferno" which cut access to the Kings Highway, Braidwood's main artery to Canberra and the South Coast.

Catherine King and Amy Kindrachuk may not be on the fire front, but they play a crucial role in the bushfire effort by catering for local fire crews.

For the past seven weeks, Cathie and Amy have started their days at 6.30am, making between 200 and 400 sandwiches to feed the exhausted firefighters.

"Our part is looking after the firies and making sure they get a decent meal during their shifts, it's the least we can do," Cathie said.

It doesn't end there. The pair, together with their team of volunteers, make thousands of snack packs every week all filled with donated treats.

"We've had kids as young as five wanting to donate food for the snack packs – they've got five bucks in their piggy bank and they want to use it to buy a box of muesli bars to donate to the fire shed," Amy said.

After a long day of buttering bread, filling packs and sending them out to various brigades, the volunteers then prepare dinner, which they describe as "restaurant quality".

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"The earliest night we've had was around midnight and a few nights we actually finished at 3.30 am because the crews didn't come in for dinner until 2am," Cathie said.

'I've had a few meltdowns due to lack of sleep and physical exhaustion, the only way you can really cope is just by taking a deep breath'

Fire crews have travelled interstate and from overseas to help Braidwood's fire effort, including teams from Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, New Zealand and Canada.

"We had crews from Kinglake who were terribly affected in Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires," Cathie said.

"When I saw their truck, I just got tears in my eyes and thought these poor people, what they've been through and they still came here to help us."

The catastrophic fires have provided no relief for almost two months, giving Cathie and Amy scarce time for rest - each only having four days off.

"It's a bit of a blur the last seven weeks – my calendar was still on November until yesterday. That's how busy I've been, I've hardly been home," Cathie said.

"I've had a few meltdowns due to lack of sleep and physical exhaustion, the only way you can really cope is just by taking a deep breath."

The fire shed is the first port of call for firies after facing ferocious fronts. Cathie described this as the hardest part of her role.

"The Currowan fire was coming at crews at more than 100 km per hour, fighting to keep it back, it was just like a monster," Cathie said.

"Seeing their faces when they get back to the sheds, it really does affect you. You have to have empathy for the fire crews because it's a bloody hard job."

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The bushfire effort has been a family endeavour for Cathie, with her husband, Danny, and daughter, Laura, both in local RFS brigades.

"One night, Danny and Laura got back, and they'd been out fighting fires for 22 hours. I will never forget their faces when they got to the fire-shed that night, they were totally shattered," Cathie said.

The sense of normality is what they miss most.

"We've got so used to not being at home that we now sit down together and have our dinner at the fire shed," Cathie said.

"It's nice to have a bit of family time because there has been no normality in our lives for two months."

Returning to regular life will be near-impossible for Amy after her parent's property burnt down during catastrophic conditions last week.

"I'm not a quitter so once I start something, I'm going to see it through, I know this job has to be done," Amy said.

"People have lost houses and businesses are struggling and that has made the community a lot stronger and brought us closer together."

"Everyone is affected, it doesn't matter who you run into down the street, everybody has a story."

Source: 9News

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