opinion

The real leaders in the bushfire emergency aren't politicians. They're people like Kale. 

Paul Sefky lives in a small cottage in Yarranbella, a country town with a population of a little over 300. His front verandah boasts a dozen or so thriving plants in black pots. It’s the kind of property you’d imagine would be visited by unperturbed kangaroos at dusk.

But some time at the end of last week, the sky over his home turned orange.

The smell of Australian air – of earth and leaves that crunch – was replaced by the scent of smoke.

His wife, who was home at the time, was given instruction to evacuate. Fast.

Watch: Emily Smith is the little girl who lost everything in the bushfires. Post continues below. 

Video by Nine News

Paul happened to be on a plane, flying back from Sydney, located about 500 kilometres from where he lives. He was in an aisle seat, and while other passengers gasped over the view of bushfires from their windows, urging him to look, Paul shook his head. Under them, he thought, his home was on fire.

When Paul fell asleep on Friday night, he thought of the home he’d lost – a place he’d lived for more than 30 years.

The fires were active all Friday and into Saturday, but on Saturday afternoon when Paul ran into the Inspector of Police, he was told he could go and check on his property.

He passed one burnt property. Then two. Then three. And then four. All that remained was an ugly blackness; a life built on a plot of land reduced to a pile of ashes.

“It was chilling,” Paul told Mamamia, “all the spaces where houses were”.

He then turned a corner, where he should have been able to see his shed. He couldn’t.

But as he edged closer, there were the wooden panels of his house that was still standing on modest, concrete stilts.

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“It was like there was a magical halo around it,” Paul said of his home.

He then did the thing that came most naturally. He swore. Loudly.

The sheds looked more like they were struck by a hurricane than a bushfire, corrugated iron sprawled across the bushland, now stained with hints of orange and brown, the fire having imprinted itself on everything it touched.

But the fact his home had survived felt like a miracle.

As Paul walked into his kitchen, he was struck by a note left on the bench.

It read: “It was a pleasure to save your house. Sorry that we could not save your sheds.

“Urunga RFS.

“P.S. – we owe you some milk.”

It was then that the tears came.

After calling his wife, loud sobs escaping him, Paul decided to post the note on Facebook. “The best note on my kitchen bench since the morning after my wedding,” he wrote.

While politicians bickered, and climate change was tossed around like a political plaything, Paul’s simple Facebook post went viral. Rumour has it that his note is sitting on the front page of a London newspaper today.

That’s when he noticed a comment from a man named Kale Hardie-Porter.

Kale had penned that note, barely able to see in the dark, surrounded by smoke, his eyes relentlessly watering.

A team of four – Kale, Tash, Gary and Craig had just saved a house on Friday when they were re-tasked to Paul’s property. When they arrived, they found themselves in a firestorm.

For a moment, it looked like they’d lose their truck.

The Urunga RFS saved Paul’s house, and in a way, Paul’s house saved them.

Flames came within 10 centimetres of Paul’s house that afternoon. The four firefighters watched as, in less than two minutes, Paul’s shed became a burning inferno.

Sixty foot high flames surrounded them. And they fought with all the water they had left.

The drinking water in their truck was hot and horrible, they later told Paul. Dehydrated, they raided his fridge, guzzling the litre of milk they found. Hungry, they also found some cheese and peanut butter. Paul laughed that not only were they milk thieves, they also helped themselves to some food.

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While this story has been shared all over the world, what many don’t know is that those four members of the RFS who showed up at Paul’s property on Friday are volunteers.

They’re not paid.

Paul has been in contact with Kale this week, who has been inundated with media requests.

Kale has barely slept, pulling 18-hour days.

“I gotta get some sleep,” Kale told Paul. “Because I have to go to work.”

Paul told Mamamia he didn’t know how else to put it, and provided a warning he was about to swear: “They’re absolute f*cking heroes.

“I can’t wait to sit down with a couple of cartons of beer and have a conversation with them all,” he said.

Paul’s is not the only story that encapsulates the Australian spirit this week.

News reporter Charlotte Mortlock told Mamamia, that this week she watched as the Sikh community in Turramurra brought down car loads of food and water for exhausted firefighters.

On Mamamia Out Loud we discuss the State of Emergency in Australia this week, and whether now is the ‘right’ time to be talking about climate change. Post continues below. 

Then, a few weeks ago, she spoke to a woman who had just moved into a retirement village. As fires approached, they all vigilantly looked after each other, frantically door knocking to ensure everyone was okay.

This woman wasn’t sure, at first, about the retirement village. But she would tell Charlotte that the sense of community she felt that night made her realise it was probably the best decision of her life.

Then, there was the 16-year-old girl who was home alone, swimming in her pool, when she smelled fire. She walked towards her garden, where she saw a fire raging.

She did two things in quick succession. The first was call triple zero. The second, was race around her house, collecting all the important family documents she could think of.

There’s a man in Lake Cathie who threw hundreds of litres of water on the back of his ute and just drove around putting out spot fires. It wasn’t his job. He wasn’t asked to do it. He just desperately wanted to help his community.

There are firefighters who don’t know what day it is, having hardly slept in two weeks. What they have faced is nothing short of a firefighter’s worst nightmare – the worst conditions many say they’ve ever seen.

“We’ve got areas the size of European­ countries on fire here,” Gaven Muller, acting inspector of Fire and Rescue on the north coast said on Tuesday.

It is the men and women, fiercely protecting people, property and animals, who are the leaders to emerge from Australia’s bushfire emergency.

They are names we might never know. And faces we wouldn’t recognise.

Let the politicians bicker and exchange insults. That’s not where we’ll find leadership.

Instead, it’s buried in small communities, and enacted by everyday people.

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