While, for many, the global pandemic has come to overshadow Australia’s horrific 2019–2020 bushfire season, that summer we experienced what was undoubtedly one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever faced.

It would come to be known as Australia’s Black Summer, a period of more than 200 days when emergency-level bushfires swept through some 1.8 million hectares of forest and woodland regions in south-eastern Australia, and nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced.

That summer is the subject of new documentary A Fire Inside, directed by Justin Krook and Luke Mazzaferro. The film is at times terrifying; the words of meteorologist and climate analyst Bruce Buckley – “Whatever we’ve seen to date, this is just the start of it” – are sobering to say the very least. And it’s filled with devastating scenes of raging fires, injured animals, evacuated people and heartbroken families who have lost loved ones.

While the film deals with the far-reaching impacts of the worst fires in Australia’s history, its primary focus is on the remarkable volunteers behind the crisis response. It shows some of the very real personal impacts of the fires, and suggests that self-sacrifice can often be a path to healing.

“The emergency didn’t stop the day the rains came,” Lifeline’s chairman John Brogden says in the film. “A different sort of emergency took over.”

Balmoral Rural Fire Service captain Brendan O’Connor has not been able to return to work due to the hernias he developed while fighting the fires. He’s also suffered financial difficulties and the breakdown of a 29-year marriage, and at times battled suicidal thoughts.

“It really has an impact when someone like Brendan O’Connor, an ex-military man who is the quintessential Aussie male, opens up about his struggles with mental health and says it’s okay to not be okay,” Mazzaferro tells Broadsheet.

On the first day of the fires, Nathan Barnden, a 27-year-old Rural Fire Service volunteer, saved a family that was trapped in their burning home. Then he did it again, three more times, and even packed a family into a car and sped through a wall of flames. Later, he found out that, while defending people he had’t met, his uncle and cousin had lost their lives protecting their own home 20 kilometres away.

“Although the fires ended at the end of March, that was just the start of the recovery process,” Barnden tells Broadsheet. “It’s very easy to see the effects the fires had on the landscape and on people’s homes, but what you don’t see is what’s hiding under the surface. This film comes at a really timely moment – just before the second anniversary of the fires – to remind people that the trauma is still there, affecting our community and our people.”

Lifeline’s Brogden agrees. “When the bushfire volunteers pack up and go home, that’s the beginning of the recovery, not the end of the situation. Even eight months on we were still getting 200 to 300 calls a day. Calls have increased, not decreased.”

“I think it’s an incredibly timely moment to realise the power of reaching out and helping others,” adds Mazzaferro. “At the time, so many people in the city said they felt helpless. I hope this film shows people that they can give back in so many ways.”

A Fire Inside is playing in more than 80 cinemas around the country. It will also be screened at the 2021 Sydney Film Festival from November 12 and is part of its online program. Check the website for screenings in Victoria when lockdown restrictions ease.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au. Check the website for screenings in Victoria when lockdown restrictions ease.

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