It was a time when actor Hunter Page-Lochard got a glimpse of the kind of experience traumatized firefighters have on the front line.
Playing the role of a volunteer firefighter named Mott in ABC’s new drama series FIRE, Page-Lochard was filming a scene for the first episode in the bush around Melbourne.
Special effects specialists had created a campfire surrounded by smoke with flames snaking around the trees.
Real firefighters employed as production consultants were watching.
“As you enter the scene, you can see how [special effects experts] wrap fire blankets and gas coils around real trees and there is a real fire so it’s rigged to look very real, but as an actor do you think it is is real, however?
âIt looks very ‘Hollywood’ – I can see the gas tanks right there.
âBut then you leave the set and talk to the fire department and they have tears in their eyes saying how real it looks, that it actually looks like the first fire they went on.
âSo there were little PTSD moments like that during the shoot,â Page-Lochard recalls.
âAnd then when you step back onto the set and they call for action, you don’t have to do anything because it’s just been confirmed how real it is.
“[Fellow actor] Eliza Scanlen and I really focused on questioning the firefighters about the smallest details, for example, are we wearing helmets in the cab of the truck? Because it was so important for us to make sure we respected them first and foremost. “
FEUX, a six-part anthology series starting on ABC TV and iview tonight, was inspired by the stories of people who experienced the catastrophic bushfires of the black summer of 2019-2020, which made 33 dead, saw doomsday scenes of people taking refuge on beaches, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings, burned millions of acres and covered cities far from the burning bush in choking smoke.
âI was watching the fires on my Christmas vacation and felt so helpless and helpless,â said co-creator and executive producer Tony Ayres.
âI had a friend who got caught in a fire and only survived by jumping into the neighbor’s basement.
âOur showrunner and co-creator Belinda Chayko was actually in the thick of it, hosting people because she lives in North New South Wales, and she had a lot of friends who had lost their place or who had had terrifying experiences.
âAnd I thought, what can we do as storytellers? How can we contribute to this debate, to try to understand what happened and also to try to get into people’s experiences, what people really felt, because I think most of the people in the cities were outside the experiment.
“Theater is a compassionate medium, so if we can kind of step into people’s shoes and share a moment in their lives, we can hopefully feel compassion.”
The program follows the impact of this long and meteoric fire season by following two young volunteer firefighters, Mott (Hunter Page-Lochard) and Tash (Eliza Scanlen), who nearly lost their lives fighting a fierce fire in Queensland, then travel to New South Wales. and Victoria to fight the fires that burn over the Christmas and New Years season.
An outstanding cast also includes Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto, Anna Torv, Sam Worthington, Sullivan Stapleton and Noni Hazelhurst.
Page-Lochard – also a regular Play School presenter – watched much of the disaster unfold from afar in far north Queensland where he was filming, but upon returning to his Sydney home he recalls worrying deeply about the amount of smoke hovering over the city and the potential impact on the health of her newborn daughter.
âIt was scary, it was apocalyptic, and I think what gave him the apocalyptic feeling was that everyone was feeling the same,â he says.
“While worrying about the smoke over Sydney isn’t as hard as being stranded on a beach because you’re surrounded by fires, the fact that we’re affected by this smoke from a fire that affects these people on a beach in some way has connected us all metaphorically, no matter how intense your experience is. “
With the trauma of the black summer flames quickly overtaken by more than 18 months of relentless stress of experiencing a global pandemic, Page-Lochard believes the program offers an opportunity for long-awaited emotional healing.
âI see it as a therapy session,â he says.
“Because of the way we tell stories, we don’t focus on the negativity of the f *** – ups, we focus on the people who have come together to save each other and to save the wild .
“I think it’s confronting the comeback [to that time] but it’s not confronting in a way you want to turn it off, it’s confronting in a way where it’s therapeutic, where it’s a sigh of relief.
âYou shed a tear because you didn’t allow yourself to shed a tear during the actual fires because you switched to COVID.
âSo I feel like this is a pretty important time to show it because people just shifted that stress to the next big thing, the pandemic, and no one has really been able to share this heartbreak over the loss of human life and loss of land.
“I think it’s going to be cathartic.”
The series faced many challenges during filming – COVID restrictions and blocks, torrential rain while filming outdoor fire scenes – and the producers were keenly aware of the need to be sensitive to the trauma suffered by the communities directly affected by the fires.
Producers worked closely with major fire agencies including CFA in Victoria, NSW RFS and QFES, the Queensland Volunteer Firefighters Union, and hired a CFA recommended fire consultant to ensure an authentic portrayal of the disaster and saying they had positive feedback on the filming scripts and the first viewings of some episodes.
They also wanted the cast to reflect a diverse Australia.
“I think this [show] is revolutionary, âsays Page-Lochard, a descendant of the Nunukul people and the Munaldjali clan of the Yagembeh nation in southeast Queensland.
âI applaud Belinda Chayko for doing the color blind cast well.
âColorblind casting can sometimes be misunderstood.
“[Producers] can overcompensate and add all these diverse characters into a show and freak out and go, ‘I don’t know what to write for these guys so I’m just going to write it all down to relate to their culture rather than just letting them be characters.’
âBut Belinda chose an Aboriginal actor to play a firefighter.
âShe didn’t choose an Indigenous actor to play an Indigenous firefighter.
âShe did it in a subtle way where being native isn’t the goal, he’s a firefighter, end of story.
“Additionally, you will notice in the first episode that [my character] Mott’s family is a lot more positive than Eliza’s character’s Caucasian family and you never see that on screen, so I really take my hat off to Belinda. “
As another fire season approaches, Tony Ayres is hopeful that FIRES will spark a conversation about the lasting effects of Black Summer and the ever-present threat of another.
“I hope this show will give us the opportunity to talk about the lingering traumas facing rural Australia in particular,” said Tony Ayres.
“For a lot of people in cities, COVID has replaced fires and we are not engaged in what other people are still facing, for the rest of us it is a forgotten experience, and I think it is It’s really important that we don’t forget about this experience.
“And I hope the show gives people a reason to talk about why the fires happened, what the underlying reasons are, this climate emergency we find ourselves in, what can we do when that breeds?
“These are urgent questions because I think it is inevitable that we will have to face them again.
“We need to talk about it now.”
FIRES premieres on ABC TV and iview on Sunday September 26 at 8:40 p.m.