Bushfires and Coronavirus: a couple at the coalface

June 3, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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As the Bushfire Royal Commission began to hear evidence of the tragic devastation which created havoc and horror in Australia last summer, one man tells his story…

Kate and Noel Kessel

“I’m Noel Kessel. I am a volunteer fireman with the NSW Rural Fire Service, attached to Cottage Point Brigade.

During the past Summer, I was actively involved with the bushfires that ravaged huge tracts of NSW.
During this period my crew was deployed to fight fires throughout various parts of the state.
We spent a number of days battling the mammoth Gospers Mountain fire to the north of Sydney, fires in The Blue Mountains and the ill-fated deadly Buxton fire South of Sydney.
I was also deployed to the Creewah Fire near the NSW/Victoria border.
There are a lot of challenges out on the fire ground. You always have in the back of your mind that fire-fighting is a very dangerous activity and that things can go wrong very quickly. One of the most dangerous risks is falling trees which are called “widow makers”.
On a number of occasions, we had near misses with falling trees both on main roads and on dirt tracks. After the main firefront would pass, the fire gets into the trunk of the trees and every now and then without warning you would hear a loud crack and then a loud boom as a large tree crashes to the ground. That’s probably one of the scariest parts of the job.. Especially at night. It’s comforting to know that you are working with a bunch of competent and highly skilled men and women on the truck who looks after each other. You very quickly form a close bond with your colleagues who become your extended family.
Kosher food is also a problem out in the field. I always carried a few cans of tuna, baked beans and plenty of muesli bars.

Noel Kessel at the front

We generally carry a bunch of fruit in the Eski on the back of the firetruck for snacks.

Sydney’s Our Big Kitchen also provided a stack of frozen meals.
I remember on one occasion we were stuck out on a remote property where we were tasked to protect a farm homestead. That evening a helicopter landed with a box full of Big Macs for dinner. Fortunately, I had a couple of cans of tuna and baked beans which kept me going.
I tried to keep it quiet from my children my involvement in a fire overrun at Buxton. This didn’t last long as it was all over the news the next day along with the tragic details of the five firemen who had suffered serious burns and of the two who died when a tree fell onto their firetruck.
Not only did it send a shiver down my spine, but it really spooked my son Avishai. He became very attached and clingy and was very anxious and emotional whenever I would head off to the fire station. On one occasion he grabbed me and whilst crying refused to let go.  On the upside whenever I would return he would always greet me with a huge embrace and a hug.
My daughter Liorah seemed to be handling it all pretty well, even to the point that she has joined the Northern Beaches Rural Fire Service Cadet Program. Obviously it was also a challenging time for my wife when I was away. Often I would return home in the early hours of the morning and attempt to creep into bed without waking her. I didn’t always succeed.
Being alone with the kids and having to do almost everything single-handed was not easy. This while having to work full time. Thankfully my parents were also invaluable in helping us all out both physically and emotionally.

Noel Kessel [lt] and Tony Abbott {rt]

In March things started to settle down on the firefront but we were faced with heavy storms and days of attending storm-related incidents all around Sydney. On one of the shifts, I was working on the truck with our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It was a fun shift and I got to see a different side to Tony. He is genuinely a nice bloke who is the first one to get his hands dirty out in the field. From covering leaking rooves with tarps, to cutting up large trees that were blown over in the storms.
 Finally, just when you thought normality was returning, we were hit with the Corona Virus Pandemic. It was now time for me to hand over the baton to Kate as she was now about to enter this new deadly battle.”
The Commission will examine the preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters including the recent bushfires, as well as floods, cyclones and earthquakes.

“I’m Kate and I’m a registered nurse at Sydney’s St.Vincent’s Hospital.
As the COVID -19 pandemic began to escalate, the daily routine at the hospital began to change. Within days, certain wards were being shut down and transformed into Intensive Care units in preparation for the influx of the predicted thousands of COVID cases.
As the number of cases climbed, so to did our preparedness. Staff were being shuffled around the hospital and strict treatment procedures and protocols were being implemented.
We were instructed to treat every patient as if they were carrying the COVID 19 virus, which meant wearing full PPE attire including surgical gowns, masks, gloves and eye/face protection. Every person who entered the hospital was also required to answer a few questions and have their temperature checked. It was all crazy. The health department estimated that around 45,000 people would contract the virus.
Thankfully, Baruch Hashem, this has not happened and we have been extremely lucky so far and I pray to Hashem that things will remain this way.
As the virus took hold around the world, the picture looked very dark and gloomy. As we entered into the lockdown phase, school was suspended for my children and we all had to adapt to homeschooling. This was challenging at times but fortunately, Noel was able to stay at home with the children., and soon enough the kids began to enjoy this new education concept.
 Pesach was also interesting. For almost everybody in the Sydney Jewish Community, the traditional family Seder gatherings were exchanged for small intimate family ones. It obviously was not so easy for the elderly members of the community who associate Pesach Seders surrounded by family. For my parents-in-law, I think it was the first time ever they were alone to conduct the Seder by themselves. I believe it is even more rewarding when you do a mitzvah in such challenging times. We are also grateful to Rabbi Moss and his wife Nechama Dina for all the support they have given us and many others within the Nefesh Community.
The lockdown also meant that the children couldn’t see their grandparents who they are very close to. The occasional visit was had but with them on their balcony and us down below. Noel also took the children on a number of bushwalks which was a great thing from a mental health perspective.
 Now that life is slowly returning to a somewhat normal routine, it is important not to be complacent but to continue to maintain social distancing. The last thing we need is a second wave of this terrible deadly virus.”

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