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World's largest volunteer force fights Australia's wildfires

An army of 72,000 people from across the New South Wales make up the world’s largest volunteer fire service.
Credit: AP
Signs are displayed near Ulludulla, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, thanking "firies" a colloquial term for firefighters. House after house in affected areas have hung makeshift banners offering thanks to the people they call "firies." It's a far cry from how many Australians view their leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been widely ridiculed for his response to the disaster. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Doug Schutz started volunteering with the Rural Fire Service in Australia's New South Wales state some 53 years ago, at the age of 13.Now captain of the Tomerong brigade, he’s also been the victim of a wildfire, which burned down his business on Christmas Day in 2001.

Schutz is part of an army of 72,000 people from across the state who make up the world’s largest volunteer fire service. They have been at the forefront of fighting Australia’s devastating wildfires, which have killed at least 26 people.

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“I’ve lived here all my life, and seen a lot of fires. And this one just doesn’t want to do what it’s supposed to do,” Schutz told the Associated Press. “This fire has its own agenda. In some ways, I nearly think it’s got a brain. When you think you’ve got a handle on it, it will sneak around the backdoor and bite you on the bum.” 

People from other countries who are used to relying on professional fire services find the Australian volunteer model hard to understand, but Schutz says it’s how they like it. 

Schutz told the Associated press he's been working every day since Nov. 29. He's been neglecting his own business, which ironically produces and sells firewood for residential homes. His father was a founding member of the volunteer brigade in Tomerong, so he said firefighting is in his blood. 

“We just grew up with it. And in a community like this, local knowledge is everything,” Schutz told the Associated Press. “I could take you down any track, pretty well anywhere here, and tell you exactly what’s down it. So you don’t learn that in five minutes.”

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