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Female Firie On The Frontlines

Crew captain Jess Farlow reveals her summer's most terrifying moments

Jess Farlow, 33 (pictured above on the job), agreed the fires were definitely different this year. “They were just much more intense and much bigger,” she says. And she would know. Jess has been a volunteer firie since she was 14 years old and is now one of the few female captains, heading up the Ourimbah Rural Fire Service Brigade on the NSW Central Coast. This season her crew were dispatched throughout NSW to many of the most threatening fire fronts – the Gospers Mountain fire in the north-west of Sydney, the deadly fires on the South Coast and in the Blue Mountains at Lithgow. But the worst day for her didn’t involve being on the frontlines.

‘‘It was 5am and I couldn’t sleep – which is weird for me. But I got up and I looked at my phone and saw the headline ‘Two volunteer firefighters killed’. I just stopped in fright and had to remind myself to breathe. I scanned for details. At that stage no names were given but I panicked when I read they were fighting the Green Wattle Creek blaze on the outskirts of Sydney’s south-west. Two of my guys were dispatched there. I started frantically sending off texts and calling people. Finally, after what felt like forever, I heard back from one of the guys with the joyous news that both were alive. “We’re all good and yes we’ve called our wives,’’ the text read.



Team members get some sleep in the middle of the highway.

“Out of all of the fires I had been to this summer, that moment was the scariest for me. When you are in a volunteer fire unit these people become like your second family. I would do anything for them,” she says. “And I know the people who worked alongside those victims would have felt exactly the same [NSW RFS volunteers Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, died on December 19 after a burnt out gum tree fell on their fire truck]. We are all devastated when we hear about any deaths or injuries and there have been too many this summer.” 

Jess believes many of her crew were operating on adrenaline with so many relentless, unabating fires to deal with this season. The same could be said for her: between November 26 and January 7, she had three days off amid fighting fires and working full-time as a nurse educator in the emergency department of The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

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Jess and crew giving the thumbs up after a fire

Jess and crew giving the thumbs up after battling the Gospers Mountain blaze.

“I have definitely had days where I’ve thought, ‘That’s it, I’m not doing this anymore.’ Days where I’ve sunk exhausted to the floor of my shower thinking ‘I can’t believe all that just happened and now I have to go back and do it again.’ That’s when I’ve had tears. But it would take a lot for me to throw it in.

“I couldn’t walk away from my crew. Firefighters never want to give up. It’s heart-wrenching for them to be told to pull back if it’s got too dangerous or if one property has to be sacrificed in order to save others.

“It takes someone special to put their hand up and say, ‘I will be the person who goes in when everyone is running the other way.’ Australia just couldn’t be in better hands.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of marie claire. 

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