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Amelia lost her firefighter husband at 27. Years later, she learned his job may have killed him.

Seven years ago, Amelia Maria became a widow at the age of 27.

Amelia and her one-year-old son Dennis lost husband and father Mike Maria to acute leukaemia. The 26-year-old had been a Deputy Captain with Queanbeyan City Fire Brigade.

When Mamamia caught up with Amelia, she was recovering from a 16-hour shift in rural NSW, fighting fires in conditions the state has never seen before. Her work was closed down due to the toxic smoke levels in Canberra, so she was home with her kids sewing pouches for wild life rescuers.

“We found out we were pregnant with Dennis at the airport on the way home from our honeymoon,” Amelia tells Mamamia. “He was just so excited. Mike wanted to have kids straight away and I’m so glad we did, because otherwise we wouldn’t have Dennis.”

A week after celebrating Dennis’s first birthday, Mike found a lump under his arm. “It just looked like an ingrown hair that wouldn’t go away,” Amelia says.

Like any new parents with a baby who didn’t sleep, they were both feeling run down and tired. But Amelia says Mike had a cold he just couldn’t shake.

After a trip to the GP, a blood test and further tests in hospital, it was confirmed that Mike had leukemia.

Mike and his son Dennis. Image supplied.

After doctors tried everything they could to save his life, Mike died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones just shy of Dennis’s second birthday. On special occasions, Amelia and Dennis still receive cards from Mike. Before he died, he entrusted his sister-in-law to deliver them.

Six years after Mike’s death, NSW joined other states by introducing presumptive workers compensation for firefighters who have been diagnosed with various primary site cancers.

Dr Fabienne Reisen is a Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO, and explains to Mamamia that "bushfire smoke contains compounds that are carcinogenic to humans".

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"When Mike was diagnosed, we had no idea that his cancer could be related to breathing in smoke," Amelia said.

“It wasn’t until 2018 when my sister sent me a report from the firefighters presumptive cancer legislation that linked certain cancers to firefighting - that’s when I knew.”

Among the listed cancers on the presumptive legislation is leukemia. The legislation states if a firefighter has “been employed for a set period of time, it is presumed that employment was the cause of the cancer.” For leukemia, the qualifying period is five years. Mike had been a firefighter for eight.

“I was really, really angry because it was news to me, but I knew it couldn’t have been news to the governing bodies” Amelia says. “They had to have known about the risks."

fires
Dennis as a toddler. Image supplied.

A report on ‘Respiratory Health of Firefighters’ by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre published back in 2006, finds “the presence of toxic compounds in bushfire smoke may pose occupational risks for fire fighters".

It states that a “particulate/organic vapour/formaldehyde filter provides clinically and statistically significant better protection for fire fighters’ airways while fighting bushfires.”

In layman’s terms - that’s a far cry from what firefighters are currently issued with.

The RFS require only the P2 fire retardant particulate mask be worn by both full time and volunteer firefighters on the front line of bushfires. These disposable dust masks cost around $2.

"I’ve found it really challenging to learn how closely certain cancers are linked to firefighting," Amelia says. "Having grown up in the RFS, it hadn’t occurred to me earlier that the firefighting Mike loved so much was possibly the reason he died."

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With part of the workers compensation payout she received posthumously, Amelia donated 20 full face respirators with filters that protect against particles, vapours and most gasses to Mike’s brigade at a cost of just over $5,000. "They are like family," she says of the brigade.

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On the left: Full face respirator with filters. On the right: P2 disposable dust mask issued by the RFS. Image supplied.

"They were there for us when Mike was sick and after he died. I didn’t want any of them to lose a husband or wife when there is equipment available that can possibly prevent it."

During Mamamia’s research, it has been revealed that many volunteer and full time firefighters are resorting to buying their own safer respiratory masks out of their own pocket, with costs ranging from $100 - $600.

Sydney mother Ophelia Haragli runs the popular My Sisters Keeper page on Facebook, where she talks in a very raw and frank manner about life with cancer. She is crowdfunding on behalf of brigades and asking people to "sponsor a fire fighter". For $110 per mask, people are kitting out brigades with half face respirators.

Watch: The work of My Sisters Keeper discussed on The Project. Post continues after video.

Video via The Project
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Comedian Celeste Barber, who has herself raised over $45 million for bushfire relief, recently drew attention to the initiative on her social media, saying "this is a great way to help".

Mamamia contacted the NSW RFS to ask whether recent donations were going to be allocated to firefighter safety equipment, specifically on upgrading masks. While we did not receive a comment before publication, the RFS previously told SBS, "It's important that our members, who know what's best for their brigades and communities, have a say in the use of donated funds.

"Once the bush fire emergency eases, the NSW RFS will work with senior volunteers and brigades to ensure donated funds are used for the greatest benefit of our members and their communities."

Last month, all RFS members were sent an email expressing concern about the rise in campaigning for better respiratory protection.

It said ”for the Service to consider changing any of its provided firefighting equipment and apparel, we would require a full and comprehensive scientific research and evaluation process.”

It added that “a periodic review of personal protective equipment, which will include helmets, goggles, boots and face masks is scheduled for the end of the fire season.”

Amelia has been overwhelmed by the generosity and response from around the world for the rural firefighters, as well as from celebrities promoting the cause such as Celeste Barber, Pink and Nicole Kidman.

Her only hope is that some of the money raised is spent on critical safety improvements. "I would like to see the RFS make available appropriate respiratory protection for every volunteer in the service, for at least every person on each truck," she said.

When asked about Mike’s legacy, Amelia said, "he wanted to change the world".

"He wanted to do something that made a difference. If sharing his story can make a difference - that would make him really happy."

You can follow My Sisters Keeper on Facebook here, and donate using the details below. 

Ophelia Haragli
BSB: 082231
Account number: 436029234
Description: MSK firefighters

You can also donate funds to the organisations below:

… And there’s more.

Mamamia Out Loud, our bi-weekly podcast, is coming to Melbourne for a live show, with 100 per cent of all ticket proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund.

It’s a brand new show, full of laughs and news and opinions and a few special surprises, with Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens, on February the 11th. You can buy tickets right now at mamamia.com.au/events. See you there! 

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