28 July 2021

Facing the firestorm - and living to tell the story

| Sally Hopman
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Matt Dutkiewicz

Volunteer bushfire fighter Matt Dutkiewicz accidentally took this selfie while sending a text to a team member. Photo: Supplied.

Matt Dutkiewicz is the sort of bloke you always want by your side. By day, a public servant. By every other waking moment – and if he could make time in between – he lives and breathes being a volunteer bushfire fighter with the Rivers brigade.

Matt has been through what many of us only have nightmares about. His family home was lost while he was out protecting strangers’ properties during Canberra’s killer 2003 fires. Later, when his parents couldn’t face rebuilding in Duffy, they moved down the coast to Malua Bay.

“When I heard that that house was under threat, my brother Nathan and I managed to get through before they closed the roads,” Matt said. “All the trucks were engaged at the time so we ended up going in with Nathan’s work ute and a spare hose.”

Matt and his brother saved five homes at Malua Bay on that dark day, including their parents’.

Man with hose fighting house

Nathan Dutkiewicz works to save one of the homes at Malua Bay. Photo: Matt Dutkiewicz.

A volunteer bushfire fighter for almost 28 years, Matt, 43, said few other fire seasons were as bad as 2019-2020.

“It was such a traumatic time for so many of us,” he said.

“I remember at the end of that season, like many others, I was starting to feel a little lost. Helping to tell the stories of the season can help, but you can’t always do it. But for me, it actually turned out to be part of the recovery process.

“It was like a debriefing.”

Because everything happens so quickly in a fire, those involved on the frontline rarely take it all in at the time. They are focused on saving lives and property.

“It’s particularly unique for Canberra firefighters because whereas most units just work in their own area, we are regularly sent into NSW, to Queensland and other places. When you pull all this work together, it tells quite a story.”

So, what better way to debrief from such a dark season and work to make the next season a little easier – and keep positive – than to write a book? But not just any book.

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Matt and five of his fellow firies have compiled Ablaze: The Long Hot Summer of 2019-2020, a book written by the men and women who were there and featuring the photographs they recorded at the time.

“I suppose it was like a debriefing session for us,” Matt said. “At the time of the fire, you don’t have time to think of anything else. But it is a unique experience. Usually, our recovery process is talking to each other, but you can never do that until afterwards.

“The fires on 1 August 2019 were unheard of. No one had experienced anything like it. Usually, we don’t experience something like that till Christmas at the earliest. It was so unexpected.”

Also, no two fires are the same: different crews, locations, terrain.

“They are all unique experiences,” Matt said. “Some more comfortable than others.

“Like when they wanted to send us to Queensland to help with the fires, but there was no available aircraft – so we ended up commandeering the PM’s VIP jet.”

Group of firefighters in yellow coats

The Rivers Bushfire Brigade team. Photo: Supplied.

So why does he do it?

“I guess it has to do with helping people on their worst day. But you get so much back from doing this sort of work. For me, it’s the benefit of mateship and camaraderie. That’s enough reward for me.

“I can’t imagine not doing this in some form or another.”

Apart from their personal stories telling the fires’ chronologies, Matt and his mates went through 5000 photographs, all of which they’d taken themselves, to put them in sequence for the book.

Fire truck

The ACT’s Rivers team in action on the fireground. Photo: Supplied.

“It was quite hard to do that because, like when we went to Nerriga, the whole day went to black so quickly – it was like 6:00 pm at midday.”

The small team began work on the book back in March 2020. A special first edition has been printed for the volunteers. A second edition is now at the printers.

You can pre-order Ablaze: The Long Hot Summer of 2019 from the ACT Volunteer Brigades Association.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on The RiotACT.

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