How horror bushfire season changed RFS chief forever
"I don't think I'll ever be the same."
Shane Fitzsimmons, gaze fixed, sums up the personal impact of the horror bushfire season.
Behind the Rural Fire Service Commissioner in his Homebush office is an American flag on his desk and on a lounge are three photographs of the US airmen killed in a water tanker crash in southern NSW in January.
They are reminders of the six firefighters killed and the 25 people in all who died in the crisis, which has left an indelible mark on Mr Fitzsimmons.
In an interview for The Daily Telegraph and Nova's Mates Under Fire podcast, Mr Fitzsimmons has spoken for the first time about commandeering a Defence chopper to fly to the scene just outside Albury where firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, died on December 30.
The dad-to-be was in a fire truck rolled by a tornado of flames and Mr McPaul's body was still trapped under the tanker when Mr Fitzsimmons and an RFS chaplain touched down next to the wreck.
"We landed there late night, it was probably 10pm or 11pm … we were able to land right at the accident scene and then we spent some time with the crews that were on site including the local Fire and Rescue team which were going to be responsible for getting Sam out of the vehicle," Mr Fitzsimmons said.
"We spent time at the local fire station with crews. It was just an awful night, everyone was terribly affected and of course we were then able to see Sam's wife Megan, her mum Lisa, and Sam's mum Chris."
The extraordinary event which killed Mr McPaul's and burned four firefighters was caused by a fire-generated thunderstorm and a downdraft from a pyroconvective column.
Mr Fitzsimmons returned to Sydney as the sun rose, headed straight to Homebush, put on a change of clothes and without any sleep steered NSW through one of its worst bushfire days.
He said modelling had since shown the catastrophic New Year's Eve blazes, which killed 7, should have claimed more than 150 people.
Mass evacuations to the beach where thousands sheltered saved many lives.
Mr Fitzsimmons, who lost his own father in a hazard reduction burn in June 2000 in northern Sydney, said spending time with the partners and families of the six firefighters was "sacred."
"Absolutely I'll be changed forever," he said.
He said kindness and love shown in communities impacted by fires balanced the trauma.
On New Year's Day Mr Fitzsimmons visited the devastated Malua Bay region with Gladys Berejiklian and met members of a family of 24 taken in by an elderly couple.
They asked if the premier could call their relatives to let them know they were OK.
When she readily agreed, others lined up and asked the same.
"Where we could get some phone coverage she said to the driver 'please just pause here for a moment while we have good phone coverage I've got to make a few phone calls' and here she goes, she calls all these people saying 'hello, I'm Gladys Berejiklian,' and she had to clarify yes, she was the premier, but she just passed on that message to let them know they were OK," he said.
"It was a pretty special moment."
Originally published as How horror bushfire season changed RFS chief forever