On the eve of one of the biggest days in our Black Summer, Rural Fire Service (RFS) Captain Danielle Brice wrote to her team, “Tomorrow will be a challenging day.”
“The response from all our brigades has gone beyond and above the call of duty.
“We wait and watch with the community and pray that you, your team and everyone stays safe. Our thoughts are with you all tomorrow.”
That was January 3, 2020. The days that followed lived up to the fears Danny spoke of in her email.
The Border Fire in the far south of the Bega Valley made a fast and furious run toward Eden, claiming dozens of homes south and west of the famous town.
By that stage, Danny and many other volunteers and paid staff from the Rural Fire Service in the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley had already had a long summer, fighting fires in other parts of Australia.
“I’d already done a lot of out of area deployments. I’d been down to Tasmania, and worked as an aviation radio operator, I went out to Tumut and did the same thing. I went up to Armidale then backup to Grafton and then into Shoalhaven. Then the Currowan Fire took off in Eurobodalla and I came back home to Eurobodalla,” Danny remembers.
In the 10 weeks that followed around 1000 homes were destroyed in the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley, not to mention lives like those of Robert and Patrick Salway at Cobargo.
Eighteen months on sitting in Danny’s garden at Tuross Head the experience is still raw and one that Danny and her husband Nick step through every day.
“It does seem like a blur. There are times when you see pictures or reports in the paper, hear things on the radio, or see footage on the TV, and a lot of feelings and memories do come flooding back,” she says.
Danny is the Team Leader of the Eurobodalla RFS Volunteer Operations Support team, “they’re an amazing team that take all the radio calls,” she says.
“But then my role became an aviation radio operator. I ended up working with the crews that came out from America and Canada. But also working alongside my team that we’re taking all the calls from the fire ground.
“All the radio reports and chatter comes in. You can hear and you can feel what’s going on. It was just unbelievable what was happening out on the fire ground.
“We were covering radio operations for both Eurobodalla and Bega Valley. There were fires everywhere. Every brigade was out, there were calls from crews coming in trying to save property, trying to save lives. One description that really sticks in my mind was a call saying that the conditions were cyclonic.
“We all just had to keep doing our job.
“There were a lot of firefighters out fighting the fires knowing that at the same time their own property was under threat. One of our members actually lost her house.”
Sadly, for Danny and Nick, grief and trauma shadow their every day. The sudden death of their two young sons, three years apart drives Danny’s passion and community contribution.
“Trauma and grief are really hard things to go through, if you are feeling any sort of feelings that don’t feel quite right, then getting help is really important,” Danny says.
“It’s 13 years since we lost Chris and 10 years this August since Nicholas, you still have memories that keep coming up all the time, but you just try and address what you can.
“Talk to people, it may be talking to a doctor or a psychologist, talking to a good friend, talking to your family, just to help you through some of those really hard times.
“Things don’t happen overnight. It is really a work in progress.”
The compounding experience of Black Summer adds to Danny’s mental fitness challenge.
“I’d wake up and just have this wave of sadness go over me and feel sick in the stomach. I can get a dry mouth, I can startle easily at different things. You forget things, and particularly after the fire I found I was just walking around in circles.”
Connecting with other first responders through Fortem Australia has been important. Danny and Nick took part in an RFS v SES Mystery Box Cooking Challenge at Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School in Bermagui earlier this year.
“One of the reasons I wanted to have a go was when young Nicholas was alive, all he wanted to do was go on Masterchef. And I thought, I might be able to fill that little niche for him,” Danny smiles.
“It helped me deal with the trauma of the Black Summer and also remember my son and continue to deal with that grief and trauma.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a couple of fellow RFS members – Chris and Nikki, and we we’re up against nine fabulous SES members.
“There was a lot of teamwork, and a lot of laughs, it was great mateship, and a chance to learn and try something new.”
For the record the RFS team won by two points with their quail dish and chocolate filled crepes, hot on the heels of an SES pork belly laksa.
“It gave us something to look forward to, something to take our mind off everything.
“Nick and I really want to thank Jacqueline and Hayley from Fortem and Kelly Eastwood at the cooking school, for the opportunity to participate in this amazing cooking challenge.”
At the heart of Danny’s resilience and strength is her service, that sense of “giving back to our community, being part of that community and being there when there is need.”
“Particularly for myself and Nick, when we lost both our boys the community was absolutely amazing and I really feel a heavy debt to the them,” Danny says.
“I really want to give back, and both Nicholas and Chris had special dreams and contributed to the community in their own way through the RFS, SES, St John Ambulance, Surf Life Saving, and Army Reserves, I am also helping their memories live on.”
For someone who gets so much from helping her community, Danny understands that she can’t look after others if she doesn’t look after herself.
“I felt pretty shitty after the fires and just felt I needed to do something. So I’ve lost some weight and I’m exercising more. But I’m still really trying to work on my mental health at the moment,” she says.
“Look at the devastation that has occurred, the loss of life, the loss of people’s homes, loss of property, and the environment – you see it every day.
“I love to volunteer and I love serving with the Rural Fire Service, but I need to be at the top of my game to be able to help and lead my team.
“It’s really important that I set a good example and try and look after myself and the people around me.”