On the latest episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, the Queer Eye star talks to firefighter Fiona Macken about the Australian bushfires and how important people’s donations and support still are in the aftermath.
As the world stepped into 2020, we all watched in horror as footage showed bushfires continuing to rip through Australia.
The devastation was impossible to ignore. The fires, which burned an area of land the size of South Korea (that’s 20% of Australia’s forests), killed 33 people and an estimated one billion animals. Celebrities and international figures, such as Lizzo and Margot Robbie, used their platforms to raise awareness and funds.
A new report by climate scientists shows that the fires were more catastrophic than they first thought, and called them a “fiery wake-up call for climate science”. But, as soon as the fires died down, so did the coverage – despite the fact that Australia is now dealing with the mammoth aftermath.
But one person who’s not about to let the conversations around the fires go quiet is Jonathan Van Ness. The Queer Eye star just visited Melbourne, where he interviewed a firefighter for the new episode of his Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness podcast.
Fiona Macken is a volunteer firefighter with the Country Fire Authority and 3rd Lieutenant of the Diamond Creek Fire Brigade. In 2009 she was deployed during the Black Saturday Bushfires, which are considered Australia’s most devastating fires to date. She’s witnessed the lasting impact these catastrophes have on survivors and firefighters and has dedicated her life’s work to safety education and prevention.
She talked to Van Ness about why she became a first responder, the team of people supporting firefighters, and how to help with the most recent bushfires in Australia. She also touched on what it’s like answering a call to a suicide and what really happens when the fire service is paged with an emergency.
Reflecting on just how devastating the 2009 fires were and what it was like to fight them, Macken said: “We were minding our own business that day but we were aware of that fact that it was going to be a really bad day. We’ve got reasonably accurate forecasts, usually seven-to-10 days… we were really on standby.
“The fires were enormous. They were like nothing anyone had ever experienced before. And because we had come off a 10-year drought, the ground and vegetation were so dry. And the fire was very intense very quickly. As a result of that, a lot of homes were lost very quickly, and unfortunately 173 people died that day. And I guess as firefighters you train and train and train, and you prepare, but something like this happens and it’s really a once in a lifetime event.”
She then went on to explain what the big problem with the most recent bushfires was, saying: “A lot of them were in really remote areas, so it’s very difficult to get in and fight those fires. We can use aircraft to an extent, but if there’s a dense canopy in those bushy, forested areas, then it’s really difficult to get those fires out…
She added: “Often these large, large fires get going and because of the remoteness of the terrain it’s just too difficult to fight them.”
One specific issue that the pair discussed was the backlash that Van Ness faced after helping to raise funds for the relief efforts while touring around Australia.
“I wanted to help and I urged people to donate…” he said. “And afterwards I was like let me work with the RSPCA and the Australian Red Cross for donations to have at the shows…”
“And there was press around the 10% that Red Cross takes for its backlogs, and I thought about that, because I had so many people that were not Australian sending me really intense shitty DMs about that. Basically because they had read an article or two and it says that there is controversy…”
He continued: “To me, that makes sense: it’s a bigger more unprecedented fire than you ever had which means that you’re probably working with more people that you’ve ever had and you need more coordination than you’ve ever had. And you need to get water, fire fighting resources, shelter, food, all of these things that will cost more than ever… that doesn’t happen for free.”
Macken replied: “When you donate to something like the Red Cross, they’re not volunteers for the most part – they’ve got staff that need to be paid. And this is the career that these people have chosen. And we can’t expect them not to put a roof over their heads or not to feed their children and not receive their salaries.
“I can’t speak on behalf of an organisation such as that but I absolutely think they’re justified in having a certain proportion set aside for their own costs otherwise it’s going to be chaos.”
Listen to the latest episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness below
How to continue helping Australia’s wildfire relief
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…