Australian Story: May 4

Australian Story tonight profiles NSW Rural Fire Services boss Shane Fitzsimmons who became became the ‘face of the fires.’

This episode is introduced by General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

As New South Wales burned through a black summer, one man stood out – Rural Fire Services boss Shane Fitzsimmons. As communities were being engulfed by fire, and amid political turmoil, Fitzsimmons was reassuring, straight talking and honest. He became the ‘face of the fires’ – the person a frightened population could trust and for many, a national hero.

For the first time Fitzsimmons reveals the man behind his calm facade. What drives him and the difficult early life he overcame to become a leader at one of the worst times in the nation’s history.

He talks about what was going through his mind in the command centre and the sleepless nights he spent worrying about the safety of his volunteers. He speaks of the controversies and his criticisms of the Prime Minister’s office and his intimate knowledge of what the 72,000 firefighters under his command were going through.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian admits she relied on Fitzsimmon’s leadership. “I’m more prepared now than I would have been,” she says of managing the virus crisis currently gripping the state.

It was the local bushfire brigade and its community of volunteers that gave Fitzsimmons purpose after a troubled childhood, marked by domestic violence.

He also learned firsthand what it’s like to put your life on the line.

“Am I allowed to say ‘shit’?” he asks, describing a life-threatening situation when his team was entrapped by fire in 1994.

His own father was killed in a runaway bushfire in 2000. By then an Assistant Commissioner, Fitzsimmons admits there was a moment when he thought of giving the game away.

Instead it steeled his determination: “I’m driven by trying to make a difference for everybody, because everybody that goes out and volunteers does extraordinary work in their community and deserves to go home,” he says.

As Australian Story goes to air, Shane Fitzsimmons will spend his first day in the unique new role of Commissioner for Resilience – with a brief to support people in the aftermath of an immediate crisis – when the need for rebuilding and recovery in broken communities is glaring.

“I’m looking forward to the enormity of the challenge.”

Producer: Deborah Richards

8pm tonight on ABC.

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