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"I'm still troubled by it." The bushfire tragedy that broke Shane Fitzsimmons.

It was the photo that many Australians won’t ever forget.

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons pinning a posthumous bravery award on the tiny RFS uniform worn by 19-month-old Harvey Keaton at the funeral of his dad Geoffrey Keaton on January 2.

As the world welcomed in the new year, the family of volunteer firefighters Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer faced life without them, after the men were killed when their truck rolled while battling the large Green Wattle Creek blaze near the town of Buxton, NSW.

As he pinned the medal on Harvey – and the same on 19-month-old Charlotte O’Dwyer just days later – how did Fitzsimmons keep it together?

“I didn’t,” he insisted. “I didn’t.”

Shane Fitzsimmons on The Sunday Project. Post continues below video.

Video via Channel 10
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Speaking on The Sunday Project, Fitzsimmons confirmed to co-host Lisa Wilkinson he felt a kinship with Harvey, as well as O’Dwyer’s young daughter Charlotte.

Twenty years ago, he lost his own father George Fitzsimmons, 53, to a hazard-reduction burning gone wrong in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney. Three others also died that day.

“I was a young adult when I lost my dad, but I think all children really rely on and deserve good parenting to bring them up in life,” he said.

“And these poor kids are going to miss out on one critical ingredient in that process.”

sydney bushfire deaths
Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer, with their children Harvey and Charlotte - born within days of each other. Images: NSW RFS.

Throughout the horror fire season, Fitzsimmons was a familiar face on Australia television. He was there with updates when we woke up in the mornings, and again before we went to sleep. He was surviving on little sleep, pulling 18-hour shifts and focusing on the job at hand.

His leadership was praised, within the public and those he led.

"We'd follow him anywhere," an exhausted Bundanoon firefighter is quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph, proving Fitzsimmons didn't just have the country's public captivated, he was also a hero among heroes as well.

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Fitzsimmons told Wilkinson the praise was "overwhelming".

"It's absolutely been lovely, but it is quite overwhelming. I find it very humbling, because at the end of the day, I was just part of a really big jigsaw puzzle," he explained.

Fitzsimmons said he did not believe the 2019/20 fire season was the "new norm", but it could be "the new extreme".

"I don't know if we can say we won't see a summer like we've just seen. This might be the new extreme we've got to start coming to grips with, but I think it's a false call to suggest it's the new norm, because there is so much seasonality that occurs to our weather patterns at any given time. This was unprecedented.

"A lot of people hated me using the word unprecedented this fire season, but the reality was it was unprecedented. When you've got the number of fires, when you've got the area burned at 5.5 million hectares, when you've got a season that started in winter, I'm sorry, it hasn't happened before, so if unprecedented isn't the word what is it?"

Firefighters Continue To Battle Bushfires As Catastrophic Fire Danger Warning Is Issued In NSW
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons talks to media at the NSW Headquarters. Image: Mark Metcalfe/Getty.

That word - unprecedented - is one we've heard more than ever before in 2020.

First, in response to the fires, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

From May 1, Fitzsimmons will take on the role of State Emergency Recovery Controller for Resilience NSW.

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He'll be responsible for coordinating recovery efforts and uniting responders and support agencies to help those impacted in disasters get back on their feet, reported the Daily Telegraph.

He has been working with government officials to develop our first response to the coronavirus pandemic, and one again pledged that bushfire victims won't be forgotten as he takes on his new role.

"You're not forgotten. Absolutely not," he said on The Project.

"As I embark on undertaking this new role as Commissioner of Resilience New South Wales, the premier, the deputy premier, the cabinet is absolutely resolute in making sure we don't forget the drought assistance, we don't forget the bushfire victims, and the three big priorities I was given by the premier: Priority one: recovery, priority two: recovery, priority three: recovery."

Fitzsimmons said he was "going okay" following the months of disaster.

"I'm still troubled by it, I'm still emotionally engaged with what's gone on, but I'm healing. It's a reality of life and I'm okay with that.

"It has been a tough start to the year but there's something very special that I find in society, in people, in community when we are at our worst. When we are at our most troubled, we also see the best of our people come together."

Feature image: Channel 10.

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