Eight months ago fires ripped through Australia’s coastal and inland towns in what has been aptly named the Black Summer. The nation watched in horror as flames enveloped the land, leaving behind blackened remains of a life that once was.

On the front lines, brave men and women from across the country defended what they could from devastation. University student Katie Tabke was one of them. This is her story.


Unlock the front door. Down the hall. Sit down. Untie my boots. Peel my damp socks from my feet.

I will never not laugh at the crisp line of untouched ankle where my sock ends and my leg begins. The rest of my skin, covered in dark smoky ash.

I should probably remake my pack. Ugh, I really don’t want to.

No, you sure as shit won’t want to deal with that in the morning.

Fine.

View through car of smoke
Firefighters drove through thick smock to reach the blaze in Nerriga. Image: Katie Tabke

Loosen the ties, out comes the packaging from food made or donated by loved ones and generous community members.

Next, pack the clean spare shirt and socks. Better replenish the tuna and muesli bars, staples on the fire ground. Give the camelback a quick rinse. Well, I definitely should. Eh, maybe tomorrow.

Crap, those boot laces are wearing a little thin. Hot ash tends to do that. Quickly retrieve a filthy safety mask. I can’t throw that out, I don’t have time to grab a fresh one tomorrow.

Yep, that should do it.

Strip.

Chuck my sweat ridden shirt in the wash. My pants and jacket can wait, they won’t be dry by morning if I wash them now.

Oh, hi babe. Yep, busy day.

Shower. Bed. Sleep.

Wake up and out the door by 0430.

Smoke above the road
The sky began to turn black as Katie approached Orroral Valley. Source: Katie Tabke

When friends and family ask me, “how was your summer?”, I never really know how to answer. Busy is generally the word that comes to mind, and really it is quite fitting. But it will never succeed to describe what this year’s bush fire season brought.

From the get-go, we knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary season. ACT crews were placed on the north black range fire. This blaze was an intense introduction to the season and a fitting warm-up for what was to come.

This year was my second season as a member of the ACT Rural Fire Service. I won’t lie, many days this season was tough. Many even a bit terrifying. I learnt the real power and potential of wildfire and the devastation it leaves behind.

Fire truck driving through smoke
There was limited visibility facing the fires in Nerriga. Image: Katie Tabke.

I saw flame heights twice the size of our 4m tall trucks and heard the deafening sounds of crackling tea tree within them.

I saw crew members clinging to the inside of the cab, white-knuckled, overwhelmed by fear, excitement, and everything in between.

Whilst fighting fires in Nerriga NSW, I experienced a mid-afternoon sky turn from smoky daylight to pitch black in a matter of minutes, smothered by a thick violent blanket of smoke. Our only light was the blinding flashes of our strike team’s red and blue emergency beacons and the raging heat of fire emerging from the nearby forest, about to descend on the small country town.

Firefighter and helicopter
A helicopter flies over the North Black Range, as firefighters prepare. Image Katie Tabke

At the time, my core responsibility was manning my unit’s radios. In shock, I received the call of an ACT truck, completely surrounded by fire. Worst of all, as we left the fire ground early the next morning,  I heard the sobs of families who had just lost everything.

And yet, here I am, preparing for what this summer will bring. The brigade members I am surrounded by make it all worth it, the bonds I have with some I cherish so, so dearly and know I always will.

Katie assisting at the ESA training centre course. Image: Gary Hooker

I am honored to be a part of a service focused on saving and protecting life when our country needs it. And yes, the absolute rush of getting in a firetruck, charging towards a plume of smoke, never quite knowing exactly what you are in for.

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