But amid the heartbreak and devastation, one man has emerged as a steady, inspiring and competent leader – NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
The 50-year-old has been a constant and reassuring presence on our television screens and on the ground in the NSW disaster zones for weeks and months on end, keeping the public informed of the unfolding situation, providing clear warnings and advice and explaining the RFS’ firefighting strategies.
But Mr Fitzsimmons has also shown his deeply human and empathetic side on many occasions.
On Tuesday this week, for example, he choked back tears during an emotional press conference as he confirmed the wife of newlywed volunteer fireman Samuel McPaul, who died after a “fire tornado” flipped his fire truck on December 30, was due to give birth to the couple’s first child in May.
And yesterday, Mr Fitzsimmons was pictured presenting Harvey Keaton — the young son of 32-year-old volunteer firefighter Geoffrey Keaton, who died on December 19 when a tree hit his fire truck — with his dad’s posthumously awarded Commissioner’s Commendation for Bravery and Service at Mr Keaton’s funeral service.
The moving image of the leader pinning the award to the little boy’s chest broke the nation’s hearts and made global headlines — and further cemented Mr Fitzsimmons as one of Australia’s most respected and best-loved leaders.
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And as Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces criticism over his own leadership during the crisis, attention is increasingly turning to Mr Fitzsimmons, who has been hailed as a “hero” by everyday Australians.
Forget the politicians. At the end of this, @RFSCommissioner Shane Fitzsimmons deserves a medal. Calm, composed, has all information, communicates clearly, shows empathy and vulnerability, has been getting to the front lines regularly while still coordinating his troops from HQ.
— John Price (@PriceyJohnDoe) January 2, 2020
What a legend this bloke has been. Shane Fitzsimmons I salute you. Australia does have some leaders worthy of admiration. pic.twitter.com/PPONewIZio
— David Sutton (@suttos101) January 2, 2020
— Motherofopinion (@MotherofOpinion) January 2, 2020
Social media is now awash with comments from Australians heaping praise on the Commissioner — and even urging him to run for NSW premier or Australian prime minister.
Shane Fitzsimmons could probably run for premier and win right about now
— John Weber (@JohnVWeber94) January 2, 2020
I vote me make Shane Fitzsimmons our Prime Minister. A great man. With empathy. #auspol
— @💧 @ctivist Prof JackW : Star-eating Black Hole (@stargrazer99) December 30, 2019
It was a sentiment echoed during previous fire crises, such as the horrific 2013 fires that were described at the time as the worst fires in NSW for 45 years, when Mr Fitzsimmons once again proved his mettle.
Mr Fitzsimmons joined the Duffys Forest Rural Fire Brigade as a volunteer at just 15 in 1985 before becoming a full-time officer in 1994.
He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming State Operations Officer in 1996 and Assistant Commissioner, Operations in 1998, a position later amended to Assistant Commissioner, Regional Management and Strategic Development.
But in 2000, he was rocked by a personal tragedy when his 53-year-old father George Fitzsimmons, a volunteer at the Duffys Forest brigade, was killed by a bushfire in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park during an out-of-control hazard reduction burn.
In 2009, Mr Fitzsimmons said the tragedy had made him even more passionate about the crucial role of the RFS.
“If I was honest, it strengthened my resolve to be part of this organisation … making sure the strategies, equipment and operations that we deploy are done in a way that maximises firefighter safety,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported him as saying.
“Every family has the right to expect their loved ones to come home after a shift.”
Mr Fitzsimmons was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal in 2001 and was appointed to his current role in 2007 at the age of 44, becoming the youngest person to ever hold the role.
Since then, he has been front and centre at every fire emergency in the state, calmly fronting the media and dispersing information as fires rage.
Today, the 50-year-old father-of-two, who is married to his teenage sweetheart Lisa, has been praised by everyday citizens and political leaders for his handling of the current bushfire disaster that has claimed Australian lives, hundreds of homes and, in some cases, entire towns.