Church minister is just another firefighter at Bundanoon

On Sunday morning, 5 January 2020, I was deployed as part of a strike team to help protect and defend people and properties in Bundanoon and Wingello, in the Southern Highlands of NSW.

Overnight they’d been hit hard by a violent firestorm that had destroyed many homes and other structures, and we were called up to “blacken out” the fire that was still burning after the front had moved through.

I’ve only been a volunteer firefighter with the RFS for a little over a year now, and this was the first time I’d been sent out to protect homes from a large, out-of-control fire front.

Even though I’ve been through lots of training, I felt a very healthy dose of fear as the adrenaline kicked in while we waited for the fire front to appear through the dense smoke that surrounded the homes.

I felt a very healthy dose of fear as the adrenaline kicked in.

I prayed for the safety of everyone fighting fires, and I prayed that through this crisis that there would be many opportunities for people to speak and hear about Jesus.

Yet, as I’m learning in the world of firefighting, we often have to “hurry up and wait”, and it turned out that the fire front wasn’t going to attack the homes in Bundanoon that my crew was tasked to defend.

And so we ‘made up’ the truck, and eventually arrived at an open field that had a home that was completely destroyed by fire.

Even though it was hours since the fire front hit, the trees and debris continued to burn.

Our mission was to ‘blacken out’ and ‘mop up’ the fireground, and so with a fully charged fire hose, we dumped thousands of litres of water upon the smouldering, barren landscape. Then, as we returned to the truck to head for refilling, I had a fresh reminder of the camaraderie of joining with like-minded servants, focused together on a risky and vital task for the protection and care of complete strangers.

I think they’re OK with having a man of the cloth wearing yellow and blue.

In many ways, I reckon the other firies in the Jamberoo brigade just see me as another bloke trying to put “the wet stuff on the red stuff”.

Yet, everyone also knows I’m the local Anglican minister, and I think they’re OK with having a man of the cloth wearing yellow and blue.

Jodie McNeill in uniform

Soon after I joined, when I asked a deputy captain to tell me where I could get the black letters to put my name on the back of my helmet, he told me that he’d look after it for me.

When I next returned to the station, I saw that he’d put on my helmet the word ‘Rev’ and a makeshift cross … which I felt was a lovely symbol of acceptance from my fellow brigade members.

In fact, to this day they often refer to me as “The Rev”, although my chaplaincy role is very much unofficial.

I was reminded of why these trees are called ‘widow makers.’

My strike team arrived after the firefront had finished its destruction, so our work was more to help mop up the aftermath and to stop the fire spreading further into unburnt areas.

Even so, there were many times that I realised the risk of walking around a fireground, especially with so many trees that still remained on fire.

Jodie McNeill in the firetruck

We’re smiling because of our camaraderie in serving together, but at the same time, we’re aware of the tragedy we’ve witnessed and the sadness of loss all around us. It’s the strange mixed emotions of serving in emergency services, I guess.

As I walked from one smouldering tree to another, I was reminded of why these trees are called ‘widow makers’… given the fact that they often fall without any notice, well after the fire has come and gone.

And during that time, as I kept looking up and around at the charred landscape, I also prayed to God that he would protect me and the other men and women in the emergency services against the many things that can easily injure us on the fireground.

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Some prayer points to help

Pray for Jodie McNeil’s fellow firies, for those who have lost houses and other property including livestock, and for all in distress