Mangoola NSW Rural Fire Service Captain Shaun Hunter talks about horror 2019-20 fire season

Captain leads from the front

This is part of Australian Community Media's Heroes of the HomeFront series, which is looking to highlight the brave efforts of firefighters all across the country.

THERE would scarcely be a person across the country who didn't feel some level of stress over the latest fire season, but it's worth taking a few minutes to understand just what's going through the head of an actual NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) captain.

Shaun Hunter, a NSW RFS member for almost a decade, has spent six of those years with the Mangoola brigade based at Denman.

He took charge about two-and-a-half years ago.

He's been at the forefront of efforts to battle blazes around the Hunter and beyond over the past few years, although he's been called to action far more than he'd like this time around.

His brigade has travelled across the state at Taree, Rainbow Flat, Johns River, Putty, Howes Valley, Wollombi-Paines crossing, Widden Valley, Martindale, Baerami, Giants Greek, Goulburn, Bredbo, Gospers Mountain, Yarrawa, Mt Royal, Yengo, Tallwoods and Gospers Mountain, which they have attended more than a dozen times.

That extraordinary list shows the work rate of NSW RFS members, and as the head figure at Mangoola, Hunter has been at the heart of it all.

Despite this, he has remained strong and kept things ticking over smoothly, although admitted it could be difficult at times.

"Prolonged fires can certainly play with your head, particularly if you get word that people's homes or lives have been lost," he said.

"We are all human, some can handle things better than others, but [it's good] knowing you have the support from not only your own family and friends, but your brigade members as well."

The physical toll can be equally tough to handle, especially when things are "hitting the fan" as Hunter put it.

But, one of the lessons he emphasised most was that it's okay to say no to a call out, and if someone needs a time out then they should have no hesitation in taking one.

Speaking of taking a break during fires, Scott Morrison's government could take more action in the future, according to the NSW RFS captain, as he encouraged officials to take note of Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons' suggestions.

He also commented on the government aid, which allowed those who are self-employed or work for small or medium-sized business to claim up to $300 per day and $6000 in total if they've been called out for more than 10 days this fire season, saying it was a good initiative that has assisted some.

"I do know the volunteer payment the government introduced has certainly helped a lot of volunteers who have lost income and fit the requirement to receive the payments," he stated.

Talk of a Royal Commission has also arisen in recent months, with the Prime Minister all but committing to the large-scale enquiry following the fire season.

However, Hunter said if one was to take place, then a substantial response would be required in order to justify the cost.

That outlook has been shared by many others, especially given the litany of post-bushfire enquiries that have not had their recommendations adopted in the past.

Ultimately, the most important issue throughout this from an individual perspective has been the ability of members to balance their work and social life with their firefighting duties.

Hunter was full of praise for his employers Weir ESCO, who have allowed him to be extremely flexible with his multiple commitments.

In terms of his family, it's his wife Mandy and kids Elise, Blade, Dominic and Ryder that keep him going.

"Plenty of times I have missed out on kids events, or family outings and my wife has supported me since day one," he said.

"Never has it been an inconvenience for her if I could not make something, or missed something because I had to attend a job.

"She is the most supportive wife in the world and I love her for that.

"Without the support of Mandy and my kids I would not be able to do what I do with the brigade."

The community support has also kept himself and the brigade in general in good spirits, and he is glad they can see how much effort they put in.

It has been Australia's lost summer. Drought, hail, floods and, worst of all, bushfires have ravaged communities all over the nation. But the selfless actions of friends, family, neighbours, strangers, local groups and volunteer organisations have inspired us and strengthened the bonds of community. Please join us in saying thanks to the heroes of the home front by sharing your stories of gratitude. To salute a person or a group, please use the form below.